What can you do when a loved one has Alzheimer's? Here are a few tips and suggestions on what you can do to help your loved one when they have the disease.
Could It Be Alzheimer’s?
While it is normal to forget as you age, how do you tell if you’re having a ‘senior moment’ or if it’s Alzheimer’s disease? 1: 8 people 65+ have this devastating form of dementia, but while it may not be obvious in its early stages, there are warning signs to watch for.
Warning Signs: Memory and Speech
In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, long-term memories usually remain intact while leaving short-term ones sketchy. You may forget conversations you’ve had with loved ones and repeat questions already answered. It can disrupt speech and make you struggle to remember common words.
Warning Signs: Behavior
In addition to memory loss, Alzheimer’s can cause confusion as well as behavior changes. You may get lost in places that seemed familiar to you. Mood swings, lapses in judgment and poor hygiene may be common. A once-stylish person may start wearing stained clothing, or forget to wash their hair.
Don’t Ignore the Signs
While it may be hard to acknowledge a loved one who has developed this disease, it is better to face it head on rather than later. A first diagnosis may indicate something else and other symptoms may cause another highly treatable position like a thyroid problem. If you have Alzheimer’s, it is best to get diagnosed as treatments are better used early in the course of the disease.
How Is It Diagnosed?
While there is no simple test for Alzheimer’s, doctors usually rely on the patient’s family to describe changes in their loved one. Mental Status Change, or “mini-cog”, is a screening test that measures mental skills and short-term memory. Neurological exams are brain scans that are used to rule out other problems such as stroke, tumor, and provide information about the brain.
What Happens to the Brain?
Alzheimer’s disease causes nerve cell death and tissue loss in the brain. As the disease progresses, the brain tissue shrinks and areas that contain cerebrospinal fluid become larger. Damage can harm memory, speech and comprehension.
What to Expect
Not everyone who gets Alzheimer’s experiences same symptoms. Sometimes symptoms worsen quickly and leads to a severe memory loss and confusion within a few years. Other changes may be gradual—possibly within 20 years for the disease to run it course. Many with Alzheimer’s live 3-9 years after diagnosis.
How Will It Change Daily Life?
Alzheimer’s affects concentration and your loved one may not be able to do ordinary tasks like cooking or pay the bills. Studies have shown that balancing a checkbook is one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s. As symptoms worsen, your loved one may not recognize familiar places or people. They may get lost easily or use utensils, like comb their hair with a fork. Incontinence, balance problems, and a loss of language may also be common as the disease advances.
Should My Loved One Stop Driving?
Poor coordination, memory loss and confusion are dangerous combinations when your loved one is in the driver’s seat. If you think your loved one should stop driving, it is important to tell them why? If they refuse to listen, you may need to ask their doctor to step in. If they still insist they can drive, contact the Department of Motor Vehicles for an assessment. If your loved one can’t drive, be prepared to make the necessary transportation plans they may need.
Can Exercise Help?
Physical activity my help a loved one keep some muscle strength and coordination, as well as boost their mood and relieve anxiety. Always check with their doctor to learn proper types of appropriate exercises for your loved one. Repetitive activities like walking, gardening, even folding laundry may give your loved one a sense of calmness.
How Is It Treated?
While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s and there is no way to slow the progression of nerve damage caused in the brain, there are medications that may appear to maintain mental skills and slow disease affects. If the loved one receives treatment in the early stages, they may stay independent while doing daily tasks over a longer period of time.
The Caregiver’s Role
If you’re caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, you may do may tasks for them like cook, chauffeur, accountant and many other roles. While managing meal planning and finances, it is better to encourage your loved one to let them do what they can for themselves. Label cabinets with contents and sticky notes for easy reminder of daily tasks.
Challenges in Caregiving
In the early stages, people with Alzheimer’s may understand what is happening to them, but they may be ashamed or anxious. Watch for signs of depression as a doctor may be able to manage with medication. Later on, the loved one may get paranoid or aggressive, even turn on you. An important note is the disease may be responsible for change—tell a doctor about these changes as soon as possible.
While researchers don’t know why, some people with Alzheimer’s may get upset when the sun goes down. It lasts through the evening, and well into night. To ease tension, it may be helpful to leave the lights on or close the drapes/blinds before sunset. It may also be helpful to distract your loved one with a favorite activity or TV show and switch to decaffeinated coffee after breakfast.
When Your Loved One Doesn’t Know You
Many people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s may have trouble remembering names—even those closest to them; but a temporary solution may arise with putting out pictures of people they are likely to see most often or know well with their names underneath the pictures. But despite the suggestions, eventually your loved one may no longer come to recognize you or other familiar faces, and they may even react as if family are strangers—which may become distressing to the main caregiver.
Warning Signs of Caregiver Stress
Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s can become physically and mentally exhausting, some signs to watch for are: anger, sadness, mood swings, headaches, back pain, trouble concentrating and sleeping.
Take Care of Yourself
To avoid caregiver burnout, remember to take a few minutes to do something for yourself every single day. It can be to stay in touch with friends or keeping up with your favorite hobbies when the opportunity arises. It can also be helpful to find a close friend or relative for emotional support. You can also join an online or local caregiver’s support group through the Alzheimer’s Association.
When your loved one is able to make important decisions, it will be necessary to talk with an attorney about drafting advance directives, such as legal documents for your loved one’s terms of medical treatments and end-of-life care. And it will be also necessary to name someone who can make health care decisions and manage the finances for your loved one. This will help avoid confusion later if your loved one is no longer able to state their wishes.
Home Health Care
Your loved one may want to stay in their own home for as long as necessarily possible. But the progression of Alzheimer’s may not allow them to perform the necessary activities of daily living (ADL’s) like using the bathroom on their own. A home health aide may be a good choice who can come into your loved one’s home to assist with personal hygiene or other daily tasks like preparing meals. Check with your local Area Agency on Aging for information on the services for delivering meals and providing transportation to the elderly.
Assisted Living Facilities
One day there may come the day your loved one may no longer be able to be cared for at home or take proper care of themselves. It may not need to be a 24-hour nursing care facility, assisted living facilities may be another good choice. They provide meals, housing, activities, and are less expensive than nursing facilities. You can also look for ones with a special care unit for Alzheimer’s that gives 24-hour supervision and personal care needs for people with dementia.
The Later Stages
In the later stages of Alzheimer’s, your loved one may lose the ability to walk, talk and respond to others as well as hinder other vital functions like swallowing. A hospice-care facility may be able to provide pain relief and comfort for people with terminal illnesses.
How to Help Children Understand
When it comes to children, they may feel confused, afraid and even resentful when a family member has Alzheimer’s. it is important to children know that their feelings are validated and normal and to answer any questions they may have about the illness honestly. One suggestion is to celebrate the happy memories of the loved one and you can even create a scrapbook with pictures of happy times.
Can it Be Prevented?
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