How to Help Care for Someone with Alzheimer’s Disease
As many as 5.4 million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer’s disease, but millions more are impacted.
A family member or friend of a person with Alzheimer’s disease usually assumes the role of caregiver, attending to the person’s health needs and assisting him or her with everyday tasks. Memory loss, personality changes, and poor decision making in a person with dementia can take an emotional toll on his or her loved ones.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 15.5 million people provided an estimated 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias in 2013. Fifty-nine percent of family caregivers rated the emotional stress of caregiving as high or very high.
The Importance of Early Diagnosis
While there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease, experts emphasize the importance of detecting it early.
“It’s important to get an early and correct diagnosis because it helps to manage expectations, define trajectory and prognosis, talk about risks to the family, and discuss treatment options in the present and research options in the future,” said Neurologist Dr. Marwan Sabbagh, director of the Alzheimer’s and Cognitive Disorders Program at Barrow.
He said people with mild cognitive impairment, or pre-dementia, are usually aware of their cognitive problems and motivated to see a doctor. But as the disease progresses, it may be more difficult to encourage someone to get evaluated.
“As they move into the Alzheimer’s dementia state, many people lose insight and awareness into the nature and severity of their problem,” Dr. Sabbagh explained.
He said people should seek medical treatment for a loved one as soon as they notice any warning signs.
“I don’t want people to get to the point where memory loss starts to affect their daily life because that means they’re already in the dementia phase,” he said.
Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease
While specific symptoms and the rate of progression vary per person, Alzheimer’s disease generally progresses slowly in three stages: mild, moderate, and severe.
“If someone is repeating the same question, statement, or story in the same day, that is one of the tell-tale signs,” Dr. Sabbagh said. “Other tell-tale signs are getting lost in familiar locations and having trouble tracking the days.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, other warning signs include difficulty completing everyday tasks, making decisions, planning, problem solving, finding the right words when speaking, and locating misplaced items. Someone in the early stages of the disease may also exhibit mood and personality changes, show poor judgment, and become withdrawn from work and social activities.
“A lot of people laugh these things off as old age when, in fact, we know this is not just old age,” Dr. Sabbagh said.
How to Help
When a person becomes forgetful and repetitive, Dr. Sabbagh advises family members and friends to be patient and avoid criticizing.
“There is no point in saying, ‘You just asked me that five times,’ ” he said. “If they ask you something 10 times, give them an answer 11 times.”
Dr. Sabbagh also explained the benefits of taking a loved one to a specialty center like the Alzheimer’s Program at Barrow, which offers advanced diagnostic tests, experts in memory disorders, innovative treatment options, and clinical trials.
Through the Alzheimer’s Association, Barrow provides resources for people who have assumed the responsibilities of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. These resources include an on-site social worker, support groups, and educational programs.
“The good news is, that’s part of what I’m trying to build here,” Dr. Sabbagh said.