When a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, it can be a stressful time for everyone involved.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in older adults. It’s a progressive disease that causes slowly worsening memory and thinking skills.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, treatment focuses on alleviating the symptoms and slowing the progression. If you are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, there are strategies that can help!
Maintain a routine. Patients with Alzheimer's benefit from having a predictable environment. As their memory fails, they will rely more and more on their environment to give them cues. Make sure things are familiar and consistent to help them feel less disoriented and reduce anxiety and agitation.
Get good sleep. Sometimes, people with Alzheimer's will become more agitated in the evenings. They may begin to mix up their nights and days, or they may only sleep in short spurts. Disrupted sleep contributes to confusion, fatigue and agitation. Ask your doctor about good sleep hygiene practices and other ways to promote healthy sleep.
Ensure effective communication. As your loved one’s dementia progresses, effective communication can become more challenging. People with Alzheimer's disease can have trouble understanding or respond to complex commands. Try to speak concisely and break tasks down into smaller parts, for example, “Can you put these glasses on the table?” rather than “Can you set the table?” Avoid overwhelming them with too many requests or information at once.
Don’t try to rehabilitate their memory. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease causes permanent damage to the brain’s memory centers. No amount of quizzing or drilling will help your loved one’s memory improve to what it used to be. Remember that most of the time, you don’t need to correct your loved one or insist that they remember something. This will probably just upset them more. Instead, try to be gentle and soothing when they are struggling. Remind yourself that they are doing the best they can, and it’s enough.
Keep hobbies going. If your loved one with dementia loved to knit or do jigsaw puzzles, make sure they still have access to these activities for as long as it’s safe. Knowing the activities your loved one still enjoys will allow you to redirect them if they are becoming anxious or agitated. It also helps keep their mind active and engaged and improves their quality of life.
Stay vigilant about safety issues. Most people with dementia are not able to drive safely. They may leave their home and get lost and may be more vulnerable to scams. They often have difficulty taking medications correctly, and start to make mistakes with their finances. When they become upset or agitated, they may also become physically aggressive toward family members. All of these issues need to be closely monitored. You may need to take away car keys, install additional locks on the doors or take over their finances or medication management. Talk to your doctor if any of these a concerns, and they can work with you to build a plan.
Ask about medications. There is no medication that can cure or stop Alzheimer’s disease, but we do have medications that can help slow the progression of some people. These include drugs like donepezil, galantamine, rivastigmine, and memantine. Sometimes, people with dementia begin to experience worsening insomnia, agitation, anxiety, paranoia, or even aggression. These behaviors can also be treated with medications. Treating behavioral symptoms can improve the quality of life for both the patient and their caregivers.
Focus on heart health. Anything that is good for your heart is good for your brain, and vice versa! Conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes make it harder for the brain to get enough oxygen. Over time, this damages the brain tissue. People who have a lot of cardiovascular conditions tend to develop Alzheimer’s disease sooner, and the disease can progress faster. If your loved one has any of these conditions, make sure they are taking medication as prescribed and following their doctor’s recommendations to keep their brain tissue as healthy as possible.
Be flexible. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, meaning what works for your loved one now may not work for them in a few months. You will have to keep adjusting your activities and expectations over time as your disease progresses. But that’s ok! Even if the time you spend together doesn’t look the same as it used to, that doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful.
Take care of yourself. Caring for a loved one with dementia can be a roller coaster of emotions. High-quality treatment of Alzheimer's disease will include the entire family. Caregiver support is vital to the health of the entire family unit. Caregivers can get connected with various community resources, such as organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association. Educational seminars, meetings, and books such as The 36-Hour Day can also be helpful. Caregiver support groups offer valuable emotional support and planning assistance.
At Ochsner, our Brain Health and Cognitive Disorders Program offers individualized caregiver support with regular check-ins, in addition to cognitive testing and evaluation for the patient. We help the patient and their family develop behavioral plans to manage symptoms, track safety issues, discuss new concerns as they arise, and connect patients to additional services as needed. We also have a free Virtual Education Series for dementia caregivers offered via zoom. (SM/Newswise)