Caring for someone who has Alzheimer's disease can take a toll. You're managing doctor appointments, learning new ways to communicate and behave with your loved one and trying to temper your emotions. You're also grieving the loss of your previous connection. Being a caregiver can be physically, mentally and emotionally draining.
That's why it's important for you to understand what's happening and get the support you need, said Thota Rao, MD, a Franciscan Physician Network psychiatrist who specializes in elderly care in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Here are four things that will help you better care for your loved one:
#1 - Accept That Your Loved One Has a Disease
"Sometimes caregivers want to believe the memory problems or confusion they are seeing in their moms or dads is related to normal aging," Dr. Rao said. "Other times, caregivers may get upset when a doctor refers their parent to a psychiatrist for care."
A doctor of neurosciences (a doctor who specializes in disorders of the brain, spine or nerves) typically diagnoses patients with Alzheimer's disease. But when it comes to treating symptoms of dementia (impaired thinking), such as paranoia, hallucinations and aggression, psychiatric care may be necessary.
"That's where I come in," said Dr. Rao. "I point out that Alzheimer's is a disease, not a mental health issue. I'll sit with the family to get a full picture of what life is like for their loved one so I can help both the patient and the caregivers through the disease process."
You may be worried about how others will react to or treat the person when they find out and there’s no right way to tell others about Alzheimer’s disease, but when the time seems right, be honest with family and friends.
The National Institute on Aging suggested using this as a chance to educate loved ones about Alzheimer’s, and the organization gives tips on how to do this:
- Share articles, websites, and other information about the disease.
- Let friends and family members know what they can do to help.
- Talk about what is happening and the changes that may happen.
- Give tips on how to interact with the person with Alzheimer’s disease.
#2 - Understand the Later Stages of Alzheimer's Disease
If you have a loved one with Alzheimer's disease, it's important to understand how the disease progresses and what care options are available.
“It's shocking for people when their parents don't remember them. That's part of the illness though. When Alzheimer's disease leads to dementia, your parents will have good and bad days," states Dr. Rao. "Medication can help them have more good days and slow the progression of the illness, but it's not a cure."
The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease worsen over time and are broken into stages which fall into three different categories. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the categories are mild, moderate and severe Alzheimer’s.
Mild Alzheimer's Disease
In the early stage of Alzheimer's, a person may function independently. He or she may still drive, work and be part of social activities. Despite this, the person may feel as if he or she is having memory lapses, such as forgetting familiar words or the location of everyday objects.
Common difficulties include:
- Problems coming up with the right word or name
- Trouble remembering names when introduced to new people
- Challenges performing tasks in social or work settings.
- Forgetting material that one has just read
- Losing or misplacing a valuable object
- Increasing trouble with planning or organizing
Moderate Alzheimer's Disease
Moderate Alzheimer's is typically the longest stage and can last for many years. As the disease progresses, the person with Alzheimer's will require a greater level of care.You may notice the person confusing words, getting frustrated or angry, or acting in unexpected ways, such as refusing to bathe.
At this point, symptoms will be noticeable to others and may include:
- Forgetfulness of events or about one's own personal history
- Feeling moody or withdrawn, especially in socially or mentally challenging situations
- Being unable to recall their own address or telephone number or the high school or college from which they graduated
- Confusion about where they are or what day it is
- The need for help choosing proper clothing for the season or the occasion
- Trouble controlling bladder and bowels in some individuals
- Changes in sleep patterns, such as sleeping during the day and becoming restless at night
- An increased risk of wandering and becoming lost
Severe Alzheimer's Disease
In the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia symptoms are severe. Individuals lose the ability to respond to their environment, to carry on a conversation and, eventually, to control movement.
When Alzheimer’s disease is considered severe, individuals may:
- Need round-the-clock assistance with daily activities and personal care
- Lose awareness of recent experiences as well as of their surroundings
- Experience changes in physical abilities, including the ability to walk, sit and, eventually, swallow
- Have increasing difficulty communicating
- Become vulnerable to infections, especially pneumonia
In addition to providing appropriate medication, a doctor also helps you make decisions about care.
"Outpatient support might be enough if your loved one lives with family and has someone who monitors medications," Dr. Rao said. "But if safety becomes an issue, I recommend an extended care facility or that someone be with your loved one all the time."
#3 - Get the Support You Need
Seeing how Alzheimer's disease affects your loved one can make you to feel depressed, said Dr. Rao. That's normal, and the reason it's essential you get the support you need as a caregiver.
Having your family's help in caring for and discussing what's going on is great, but that's not always an option. In that case, Dr. Rao suggested, going to a local support group where you can not only talk about the stressors and exchange resource information, but also learn that you're not alone in your experiences or frustrations.
Along with seeking support, make sure you are taking care of yourself. Here are some ways you can take care of yourself:
#4 - Plan for the Later Stages of Alzheimer's Disease
Because Alzheimer's disease is a progressive illness, Dr. Rao recommends planning for the issues that lie ahead.
"I see a lot of families struggling with a full plate of responsibilities – kids, full-time work and caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Rao. "If you're feeling overwhelmed, or constantly worrying about your loved one, it's time to get extra help. There are options like hiring someone to be there while you're away or moving your loved one to an assisted-living facility. And in most cases, you'll eventually need to figure out how you can manage this type of situation."
Other options include adult day care or our senior health and wellness program, which provides nursing-home level care for seniors who prefer to stay in their homes.
If possible, involve other family members in making decisions about your loved one's finances and medical care, too. Dr. Rao suggested your family meet at least on a quarterly basis to review how your loved one is doing. This way, you can make short-term and long-term plans, especially in regards to the safety of your loved one.
Learn about our short-term, in-hospital care for those with Alzheimer’s disease in the Crawfordsville, Indiana, and immediate surrounding areas by calling (765) 364-3175.
For caregiver support groups and help finding appropriate services in other parts of Indiana and South Suburban Chicago, visit Alzheimer’s and Dementia Services of Northern Indiana.
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