The CDC estimates that 14 million Americans will be living with Alzheimer’s disease by 2050, and yet little is understood about this progressive disease. For caregivers and patients, that lack of certainty can make it difficult to plan for the future. For anyone facing a recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, here are a few key basics to know.
Understand the Stages
Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia. It affects memory and overall cognitive function. In the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease, patients may have difficulty finding words, retaining new information, and focusing on tasks. These blips in cognitive function are often brushed away as “senior moments,” but over time everyday functioning becomes increasingly difficult. However, most seniors continue to live independently during early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, and doing so is encouraged.
In middle-stage Alzheimer’s disease, the impairment becomes more pronounced. Patients may begin to forget parts of their own life history, become confused easily, and start to experience personality changes like irritability or social withdrawal. Sleep patterns are disrupted and compulsive habits emerge during this stage. Middle-stage Alzheimer’s is the longest phase, and many patients exist in this stage for years before developing late-stage symptoms.
Late-stage Alzheimer’s marks a complete loss of independence for the patient. At this point, patients rely completely on others for everyday needs. While it is certainly difficult to talk about the last stage, knowing what to expect takes a little bit of the fear out of the unknown. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, understand that it is life-changing, but it is a journey you will travel together.
Make Adjustments As You Go
Here’s the truth: You can still enjoy life with Alzheimer’s disease, it’ll just be a little bit of an adjustment. The hardest part will be accepting the diagnosis, but once this is accomplished, life continues on. Persons living with dementia are encouraged to enjoy hobbies, chat with old and new friends, spend time with family, and do the things they enjoyed doing prior to receiving their diagnosis. As the disease progresses, needs and abilities will change, requiring adjustments in the daily routine.
During early-stage Alzheimer’s, individuals should be able to maintain their lifestyle with a few minor adjustments to compensate for declining ability. Some of those are small changes made at home, like setting alarms for medication reminders or placing bills on auto-pay, but others might require outside assistance. For example, some people have difficulty driving during this stage and need help from others to get around.
Mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease is where the caregiving really begins. Many families opt to move a loved one into their home once the illness begins to impair everyday living. Accommodating a loved one with Alzheimer’s requires some important home modifications such as building a step-free entryway to prevent falls, eliminating clutter to reduce confusion, labeling drawers and cabinets, and securing chemical cleaners, sharp items, and other household hazards. The National Institute of Aging identifies wandering as a major concern that caregivers should take steps to manage, like keeping doors locked and installing a chime that announces when external doors are opened.
Once the disease has progressed into its late stages, patients require continuous care to manage their most basic needs. Depending on the family’s resources and the patient’s needs, caregivers may opt to hire in-home care or pay for care in a skilled nursing facility.
Alzheimer’s disease can be hard on both the patient and the caregiver, so it’s important to take advantage of resources for support and information. The Alzheimer’s Association maintains a database of support groups around the United States where Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers can talk to peers to share stories and advice, as well as message boards and a 24/7 helpline.
In addition to information on support groups, the Alzheimer’s Association in an excellent resource for information on living your best with Alzheimer’s disease.
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