Prepare for the Unexpected: What You Should Know About Alzheimer’s
By Susan A. Farris, LNFA; Fellow, American College of Healthcare Administrators, James L. West Center, LIVING WELL Magazine
If you believe that a member of your family has Alzheimer’s disease, prepare for the unexpected and find out what you can do to make his or her life as comfortable and enriching as possible. People with the disease, managed well, can make the most of each day. Many times, worries and cares evaporate, and the simple pleasures of life—laughter, music, good food, pets, outdoor garden walks—become important.
Know, too, that you are not alone in seeking how to cope with the disease. Today, Alzheimer’s disease affects up to six million older Americans and will reach epidemic proportions as the Baby Boom generation ages. It is a brain disease that robs people of the ability to remember their own lives or loved ones, to recognize risk, and to care for themselves. The disease has no known cause, is progressive, incurable and eventually fatal. Currently, there are almost 11 million Americans––at home and without pay––acting as caregivers for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is only one of many conditions that cause serious alterations in mental functioning, or dementia. Over the next 10 to 20 years, literally millions of families will be looking for solutions to the problem of caring for someone with a serious dementia disorder. How our society cares for its aging citizens will be a defining issue for the next generation. Fortunately, many healthcare organizations are rising to the challenge of providing compassionate care for persons with dementia. From adult day programs and respite care to full-service residential care, options for families are improving every day.
What to do if you suspect Alzheimer’s…
- Rule out everything else. Some conditions, like depression, infections, medication interactions or curable illnesses can cause the same symptoms as Alzheimer’s disease, but they are treatable.
- Seek the services of a specialist in brain disorders. Getting the right diagnosis will help the whole family prepare for the future.
- Get treatment. If started early, there are medications that can relieve symptoms and allow the person with dementia to function well for a period of time. They do not work for everyone and are not a cure, but they can improve the quality of life for the whole family.
- Do your homework. Many resources are available on the Internet, and the local Alzheimer’s Association can provide valuable assistance in understanding what lies ahead.
- Bring the family together. Now is the time to talk honestly and openly and to allow the person with the diagnosis to make his or her preferences known. Does he/she want to travel or fulfill a lifelong dream? Now is the time to do it.
- Make sure living wills and financial affairs are in order. Long-term care insurance can help with caregiving expenses when needed.
- Develop a support system for the person with dementia and for the caregiver. No one person can care for someone with dementia on their own. Adult day programs and respite care can help both parties find refreshing variety and rest.
- Prepare for the day when round-the-clock care might be needed. The course of Alzheimer’s disease can be long, rocky and unpredictable. Residential care, if provided in a dementia-specific center with well-trained staff, can be a loving addition to a family’s efforts to bring comfort to a loved one with the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease affects each person differently, and there is no way to predict what course the disease will take. Damage to the brain causes persons with dementia to react in ways that family members can find unsettling. Wandering, unawareness of risk and socially inappropriate acts are common, and hallucinations and uncontrollable anger or physical outbursts can occur. The person with dementia may not recognize familiar faces or be able to perform tasks that were once routine.
It is important to remember that the behavior comes from the disease and not the person, and that trying to reason with the person will not work. The brain is damaged and simply cannot process the world as it once did. Caregivers who learn how to “go with the flow” are more successful and happier overall than those who try to change what cannot be changed. There are creative ways to “work around” difficulties, and experienced professionals can provide tips for specific caregiving dilemmas.
Susan A. Farris is executive director of the James L. West Alzheimer Center, the only facility in Tarrant County that provides care for every stage of Alzheimer’s disease. For information, call 817-877-1199, or go to www.jameslwest.com.