Family Life: Some thoughts on Alzheimer's Awareness Month

Family Life: Some thoughts on Alzheimer's Awareness Month

By Chelsey Byers

One in three people know someone with Alzheimer's disease, but I have found that this is a topic no one wants to learn about until they are in crisis.

Growing up, I never knew anyone personally that had Alzheimer's disease, but, after working in the field of aging for 16 years, I now know a lot. I worked for six years on an Alzheimer's unit at a veterans home and then focused on education for a couple of years working for the Alzheimer's Association in St. Louis.

The most important information that I can share is the importance of getting a diagnosis and then learning to better communicate with the person suffering from Alzheimer's and to understand his or her actions (often referred to as behaviors).

With the holidays approaching, you or a loved one might be visiting an older family member, and you may notice that something isn't quite the same. This can be difficult for families to consider or even accept. But it is always best, if there is concern, to get your loved one to a doctor sooner than later.

Most dementias are irreversible, but some things can cause someone to have dementia-like symptoms — and it could be something that can be treated.

Alzheimer's is considered a diagnosis of exclusions. Doctors will test for causes of the symptoms, and as they rule out possibilities, they might come to the diagnosis of Alzheimer's. Treatable causes of confusion include drug interactions, low vitamin B12 levels, dehydration or an untreated infection. Once these medical concerns are addressed, one should return to normal.

If the diagnosis is Alzheimer's, no medications can cure or stop the progression of the disease. But your loved ones can start prescription medications to help improve their quality of life for a bit longer.

If you already have a loved one living with Alzheimer's, the holidays can sometimes be exasperating with all the stimulation from extra people in the house and the change of daily routines. Some suggestions to minimize the negative impact the holidays could have on your loved one:

— Try to keep the change in routine to a minimum.

— Have families come visit in shifts instead of lots of people all at once.

— Don't try to squeeze too much into one day.

I want to leave you with some general tips that are good for anyone with loved ones who have Alzheimer's disease:

— It is best to prep any visiting family members or friends with the reality so they are prepared when they come for a visit.

— Don't feel the need to constantly correct patients if they respond incorrectly to questions; just go with the flow. Ask yourself, "How important is it really to correct the information?"

— Choose your battles. You most likely will never win an argument with someone who no longer has the ability to reason.

— If "No" is not an option, don't ask the question. For example, "Do you want to take your medication?" Patients may very well say no to that. Instead just say, "It is time to take your medication."

— Limit options to make life easier for them. Instead of asking, "What do you want to wear? Or "What do you want to eat?" Ask, "Would you like to wear your green sweater or your blue?" or "Would you like hamburgers or tacos for dinner?"

— Most importantly, just be with them where they are in their disease. They really cannot remember some things, and their abilities will continue to decrease.

There will be good days and bad days for you both. Try to enjoy the good moments when they are present with you. And if you are a caregiver, please reach out for help. Take time for you. You will not be any help to your loved one if you get run down and become ill yourself.

When I talked to families of the residents that I cared for at the veterans home, most said they wished they had reached out for help sooner while they were caregiving at home. And while discussing the topic with a co-worker last fall, I gave her some of these tips and she said that the 15 minutes we spoke was most helpful when caregiving for her mother.

The Alzheimer's Association is a great resource for more information: Call 800-272-3900 or visit http://www.alz.org.

For more information on this topic or other family life-related topics, contact Chelsey Byers at the University of Illinois Extension office, 801 N. Country Fair Drive, C. She may also be reached at 333-7672 or at clbyers@illinois.edu.

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