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Alzheimer's Disease - Simplified

Our geriatric care management team started working with seniors and their families in our community on Boston’s South Shore in 2017. Prior to that, our care managers with backgrounds in nursing, education, social work, and more, all worked with the elderly in their fields, and so, for those grappling with a loved one's Alzheimer's diagnosis, we’ve put together this guide, which aims to provide clarity, support, and practical information.


What IS Alzheimer’s Disease?


Alzheimer's disease is a complex condition that poses unique challenges for both individuals diagnosed and their caregivers. It’s a progressive brain disorder that primarily affects memory, cognitive function, and behavior. While the name, Alzheimer’s, is often used interchangeably with Dementia, there is actually a difference, with Dementia being an umbrella term that covers a wide array of issues with cognition, and Alzheimer’s being one specific type of Dementia.


The disease is mostly associated with memory loss, but early signs may include forgetfulness, difficulty with familiar tasks, confusion about time or place, and changes in mood or personality. As the disease advances, individuals may experience challenges in communication, disorientation, and difficulty with daily activities.


Understanding the trajectory of Alzheimer's disease is crucial for caregivers. The disease typically progresses through stages, from mild cognitive impairment to moderate and severe stages. Memory loss, confusion, and changes in behavior become more pronounced. Individuals may require increasing assistance with daily tasks, leading to heightened caregiving responsibilities.


How is Alzheimer’s Diagnosed?


With age, we become more likely to develop Alzheimer’s diseases, but it’s actually not exclusive to seniors and not entirely dependent on family history, as it’s commonly believed. Diagnosing Alzheimer's involves a comprehensive assessment, including medical history, cognitive tests, and imaging studies. Healthcare professionals may use tools such as the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) and brain scans to evaluate cognitive function and rule out other possible causes of symptoms.


Is There a Treatment For Alzheimer’s Disease?


While there is no cure for Alzheimer's, various treatments aim to manage symptoms and slow disease progression. Medications such as cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine may be prescribed to enhance communication between nerve cells and alleviate cognitive symptoms. Non-pharmacological interventions, including cognitive stimulation, physical exercise, and a healthy diet, can also contribute to overall well-being. Regularly socializing, learning new things, experiencing new settings, and staying active are all important factors in treating the disease.


What Are The Best Ways To Stay Connected To A Loved One Who’s Been Diagnosed?


Communicating with someone with Alzheimer's requires patience, empathy, and understanding. Talking to someone who does remember something you’re referencing from your shared past, or someone who cannot recall your name or who you are, can be frustrating. Moreover, as mentioned prior, Alzheimer’s can cause changes in personality or sudden mood shifts, which can be traumatizing for loved ones and create a rift in the relationship. It’s important to see these issues for what they are: symptoms of the disease, and not indicators of how your loved one feels about you. Use simple language, maintain eye contact, and provide visual cues. Break tasks into smaller steps, be a good listener, and avoid correcting or arguing. Creating a calm and familiar environment can enhance communication and reduce anxiety.


What Can You Expect When a Loved One is Diagnosed?


An Alzheimer's diagnosis can be overwhelming for both the individual and their family. It's essential to recognize that the progression of the disease varies from person to person. Initially, there may be a need for increased support in daily activities, and as the disease advances, more intensive care may be necessary. Preparing for potential challenges and seeking support early on can help families navigate the journey ahead.


It's important to learn about your loved one’s symptoms and how they are likely to progress in order to prepare ahead. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s Disease creates a rather challenging journey that can limit your loved one’s autonomy and independence and call for some difficult decisions. If a loved one is diagnosed early, you may need to have some uncomfortable conversations about their wishes before the disease progresses.


Where Do You Find Support?


A geriatric care manager plays a vital role in coordinating care for individuals with Alzheimer's. These professionals are skilled in assessing needs, developing care plans, and connecting families with appropriate resources. They serve as advocates, helping families make informed decisions about healthcare, housing, and support services.


Caregivers and family members should seek support to navigate the challenges of Alzheimer's caregiving. Organizations such as the Alzheimer's Association, local support groups, and online communities provide valuable resources, information, and emotional support. Educating oneself about the disease and connecting with others facing similar challenges can be empowering.


Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's requires compassion, knowledge, and a support network. By understanding the disease's appearance, diagnosis, and treatment, adopting effective communication strategies, and seeking support caregivers can navigate the challenges more effectively. The role of a geriatric care management team (like Senior Steps) is invaluable in providing tailored support and helping families make informed decisions throughout the journey. While Alzheimer's poses significant challenges, informed caregiving can enhance the quality of life for both individuals with the disease and their dedicated caregivers.


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