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Alzheimer's Disease: Part II of II - Supporting your loved one

As promised, this week I am reviewing a bit more about the symptoms and behaviors that you may notice when someone you love has Alzheimer’s disease. I will also cover some basic tips for handling the difficult situations that could arise. In my last blog post, I left off with a description of anosognosia and the effect that this condition often has on other people. Namely, feelings of frustration when the person that you know and love appears to be in complete denial about their memory loss or you suspect that there must be a hidden camera nearby. How could (s)he forget to take the groceries out of the car??? Now all of that food has gone bad! In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, it is sometimes unclear whether or not a serious problem actually exists. However, the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease is the best time to seek help. Why? Because your doctor can either treat or rule out any other conditions that could be causing your symptoms and work with you and your family to create a treatment plan. In a moment, I will describe some interventions that have been found to be most effective in the early stages of this disease.

In the middle stage of Alzheimer’s disease, it has probably become apparent to everyone that your loved one has a memory problem. Whereas this person used to be able to hide his/her symptoms by making a quick joke, smiling and nodding along in conversation, or deftly changing the subject, there are now much bigger memory gaps and other cognitive problems that can’t easily be explained. He or she will likely have difficulty making plans and coming up with the word for a familiar object. You know… what’s-it-called? The thing that you put your money and your driver’s license in. At this point, family members become increasingly worried and may ask questions such as, “How long until my mother forgets who I am?” While I can understand how concerned you are feeling, please try not to panic. First, becoming emotionally distressed simply isn’t productive. Second, your loved one will notice your reaction and become emotionally distressed as well! The bottom line is that it’s impossible to determine exact timeframes and/or whether or not a specific symptom will even occur. Since we all have different backgrounds and medical histories, the progression of one person’s disease can vary considerably from another person’s. The National Institute on Aging estimates that a person can live with Alzheimer’s disease from as little as a few years to more than 10 years.

The late stages of Alzheimer’s disease are extremely trying for family members, as your loved one will likely need constant supervision and assistance. It is therefore very important that you take care of yourself during this time by enlisting other people to help you with simple chores and provide you with some relief. Continue to connect with your loved one by sharing events that happened during the day, regardless of whether or not it will be remembered later. And even if he or she can no longer engage in conversations, the vast majority of people enjoy hearing stories about their past (i.e. reminiscing), listening to music from their childhood and adolescence, and eating their favorite foods… Long-term memory is the last thing to go.

Okay, so let’s get back to early interventions and treatment options. As you probably already know, there are only a few medications out there right now that have been shown to slow down the progression of symptoms. However, a couple more years of independence should not be so easily dismissed. In addition, new medications for Alzheimer’s disease are currently in the pipeline and I would encourage you to consider joining a clinical trial and/or other research studies. Physical exercise has also been shown to prevent disease progression. Even 20 minutes of cardiovascular activity a day has beneficial effects on physical and emotional health. In the meantime, help your loved one form good habits early on. Specifically, begin establishing a routine of writing down all appointments in a daily planner and organizing medications in a pillbox. Then remind your loved one to schedule certain times during the day to check his or her planner and to take medications. Set an alarm if you must. And finally, what do you do if your loved one keeps asking the same question, insists on wanting to go home, or is adamant that you stole his or her belongings? Take a deep breath. Now take another one. Try to resist the temptation of correcting errors and providing facts. Instead, attempt to redirect the conversation. For example, “Your purse is missing? Let me help you look for it.” After all, it’s more important for your loved one to maintain some dignity than it is for you to be right.

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