My friend called me last night worried about her 72-year-old mother, who called 911 to report her husband missing. The problem was her husband died two years ago, a fact she often forgets. My friend's mother is in the early stages of Alzheimer's dementia.
Watching a loved one suffer from Alzheimer's can be one of the most difficult things to go through. It is critical to learn about the disease and the best ways to support the person.
Dementia is manifested by loss of memory, thinking and mental abilities required by a person to stay living on their own. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 66% of all dementias. It is a slowly progressive and fatal disease, suspected to be primarily caused by two abnormal protein deposits called plaques and tangles in the brain cells. Over time, these deposits damage and kill the brain cells.
Unfortunately, the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer's dementia is simply getting old. The majority of people living with Alzheimer's are 65 years and older, yet some experience it at younger ages. Other risk factors include family history of dementia, female gender, low-level of education, head trauma, high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and depression.
When you begin noticing a loved one developing Alzheimer's dementia you should begin to consider who will make health and financial decisions when the person is no longer able, how his or her care will be handled and where the person will live.
Early stage Alzheimer's can be difficult. This memory loss is significant enough to interfere with daily tasks. Patients are unable to recall recent events and conversations. Other symptoms include decline in thinking, reasoning abilities, planning and problem-solving. Eventually they have difficulty performing activities of daily living, such as dressing, bathing, using the restroom and eating on their own. They may also wander, get lost or forget they put a pot on the stove– leading to accidents and injury.
For these reasons, it's important to remain flexible when caring for someone with Alzheimer's dementia. It also helps to minimize frustrations and reduce any safety risks. You can do this by creating a routine for the person that is easy to remember, limiting the number of options available to avoid confusion and trying to give the person as much independence as possible.
The biggest challenges faced by caregivers of Alzheimer's patients are problems such as defiance, resistance to hygiene care, wandering, anger, insomnia and paranoia toward family and friends. Patients may experience personality change, depression, fear, anxiety or social withdrawal.
Alzheimer's patients also benefit from visual cues and memories. You can assist by displaying photos around the home, writing stories and notes in a journal and making audio or visual recordings.
While there is no proven way to prevent Alzheimer's, experts believe physical activity and diet may support brain health and prevent symptoms. Many experts believe that controlling heart risk factors may be the most cost-effective and helpful approach to protect brain health.
Caregivers can provide a constant structured environment, consistent people and gentle changes to a patient with early Alzheimer's. If you, or a friend need help dealing with someone who has Alzheimer's, visit www.alz.org or call the Alzheimer's Association Helpline at 1-800-272-3900.
Dr. Ahmed is a Staff Psychiatrist at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center.
Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.