For someone receiving an Alzheimer's diagnosis, the everyday world can suddenly feel like an uncertain landscape. Fear, denial, and anxiety are common responses. Family members may also feel a sense of uncertainty. Perhaps the signs and symptoms finally make sense with a definitive assessment, but worry and unease threaten to creep in.
"The disease is emotionally challenging," says Alyce Watts, Director of Behavioral Health and Dementia Care Services for PruittHealth. "Education and support are critical factors for both the patient and the family members."
While Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, there are misunderstandings about what it is and what differentiates it from other forms of dementia. One key difference is that Alzheimer's is a progressive disease that damages the nerve cells in the brain. On the other hand, dementia is the common name given to a variety of cognitive impairments.
Early stage Alzheimer's involves confusion, memory loss, and related symptoms that are in alignment with generalized dementia. It can be subtle and overlooked. A patient may struggle with common tasks or forget important dates. Mid-stage disease progresses to memory loss about personal life history, confusion about challenging tasks, and difficulties with some personal care.1 Wandering is also a risk and requires precautions to maintain safety.
Late stage reveals greater physical symptoms like difficulty swallowing, using the bathroom, and speaking. While the thought-processing functions eventually stop working, the emotional centers are still functional. A patient may lose touch with recent events. Caregiving can have a profound impact on the mood of patients. Purposeful visits with family may include reading aloud, music, favorite meals, and other personal preferences.1
Understanding how Alzheimer's disease affects the patient can reduce frustration and tension that caregivers may experience.
After diagnosis, it's important for patients to address practical matters during early stages of the disease. Educate yourself about the disease. Make legal, financial, and proposed care decisions in advance.2
Humans naturally want to distance themselves from pain, both physical and emotional. Find ways to bolster personal connections through shared activities. Relationships may go through an adjustment period as friends and family members learn the diagnosis.
It's okay to embrace reminiscing. Look at pictures, discuss favorite memories, and share laughter.3 Family members may find support groups helpful as they discover how to cope and interact in new ways with their loved one.
Home health care can help alleviate family caregiving stresses, assess nutrition, and identify assistive needs for daily living.
Talk to the youngest family members. Age-appropriate conversations with young children and grandchildren can help keep them from worrying and answer questions they are bound to have.3 If you're not sure what to say or are struggling with the emotions of it all, ask a professional for talking points. Children are perceptive and giving them knowledge and coping mechanisms are critical to their own adjustments.
Alzheimer's disease creates confusion for the patient. Some find satisfaction by creating videos or writing letters to their family members early on. Patients may need encouragement to speak frankly about their abilities and challenges.
"As the disease progresses, adjustments will need to be made," says Watts for PruittHealth. "Talk with your health care provider for tips on how you can make daily tasks easier and relieve some of the stress."
There's no doubt that living with Alzheimer's disease involves complex difficulties. If you have concerns about memory loss, talk to a medical professional as soon as possible. Though there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, medications can help reduce some symptoms and improve quality of life. A doctor will evaluate mood, mental status, neurological function, and conduct to rule out other potential causes. Earlier diagnosis means more time to plan and explore potential treatment options.