More than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association — and more than 11 million Americans are providing unpaid care for them.
Caregivers are often family members, and they're doing their best to understand and cope with the personality and behavior changes that often accompany Alzheimer's. Here are some tips for caring for someone with Alzheimer's.
Common Changes in People With Alzheimer's
Memory loss, such as difficulty remembering conversations, names and events, is one of the most common early signs of Alzheimer's. As the disease progresses, symptoms get worse until they interfere with daily activities.
Caring for someone with Alzheimer's can be stressful and even frustrating. To know how to respond to personality and behavior changes, you must recognize and understand them.
- Memory loss and confusion. As the disease progresses, someone with Alzheimer's might forget their family members' names or important relationships. They might also forget how to use common items, like a fork or a pen.
- Depression. Someone with Alzheimer's might lose interest in the things they once enjoyed. They might also become apathetic, socially withdrawn or isolated, and they might have trouble concentrating.
- Becoming angry, anxious or worried more easily. These heightened emotions might be caused by anxiety, agitation or confusion from trying to make sense of what they hear or see.
- Suspicions and delusions. Alzheimer's patients sometimes believe that their caregivers are plotting against them or hiding or stealing household items.
- Visual or auditory hallucinations. Someone with Alzheimer's might see people who aren't really there or hear music that isn't playing. They might smell, taste or feel things that aren't there.
- Sleep issues. Many people with Alzheimer's experience sundowning — that is, they grow confused, anxious and agitated around dusk and get worse throughout the night. As a result, they might confuse nighttime and daytime.
- Aggressive behavior. People with Alzheimer's sometimes lash out verbally or physically in response to a frustrating situation — or for no apparent reason at all.
Tips for Caring for Someone With Alzheimer's
Once you know the behavior and personality changes to expect, you can calm your loved one or mitigate their behavior.
Here are five tips for caring for someone with Alzheimer's.
- Keep your explanations simple. Don't overwhelm your loved one with lengthy explanations or instructions. Just clarify with a simple explanation.
- Stick to a daily routine. When your loved one's day isn't disrupted by change, they might be less prone to anxiety and fear.
- Address their feelings instead of focusing on their words. If your loved one is feeling anxious, tell them that they seem worried. Listen to their response and let them know that you care about how they're feeling. Stay calm and reassure them that they're safe and that you're there to help.
- Don't take offense or argue. Try to understand that your loved one is living in a confusing world that often makes little or no sense.
- Offer distractions. If the person is having a hallucination, take them for a walk or move them to a well-lit room. Gently pat them to turn their attention toward you instead of the hallucination. Listen to their concerns and try to understand their reality. Again, reassure them that they're safe and that you care.
Creating a Dementia Care Plan
A good first step in caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's is creating a dementia care plan with their doctor. A dementia care plan includes a comprehensive examination and cognitive assessment for their stage of dementia. Their doctor will reconcile any high-risk medications, conduct a home and driving safety evaluation and help with advance care planning.
Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's can be a difficult and sad journey. But learning how to respond to your loved one's symptoms is an important step toward being a more compassionate caregiver.