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Living With Alzheimer’s: Understanding the symptoms and progression of Alzheimer’s Disease.

One of the first parts of the brain to succumb to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease is the hippocampus. It serves as the “gateway” through which our perceptions and experiences are interpreted and routed to other parts of the brain for permanent storage as short-term or long-term memories. Because this part of their brain is now damaged, people with Alzheimer’s may easily recall memories that were established before the disease took hold, yet be unable to recall what happened 10 minutes ago. They may be “in the moment,” but each moment is fleeting. 

As they advance through the stages of the disease, they often lose the ability to distinguish between past and present. They may not recognize their own family members, or they may mistake them for friends or relatives long since gone. People and events from their past become real to them again, and they may persist in making statements that everyone else recognizes as patently untrue. Such occurrences can frequently lead to anxiety and frustration, not only for the person with the disease as they struggle to convince others what they “know,” but also for family members and anyone else with whom they come into contact.

Professional CareGivers learn how to deal with situations like these. For example, when someone with dementia exhibits this kind of behavior, CareGivers know to switch from a “reality orientation” to “validation.” They make every effort to distinguish between what is genuinely real and the “reality” of the person suffering with the disease. People with Alzheimer’s are not “wrong” or intentionally denying the truth; they are simply trying to cope with their own truth. 

CareGivers learn to recognize the disease for what it is and to go along with these notions. They understand that what the person with dementia is really seeking is the comfort and assurance their memories contain. When situations arise like those described above, rather than follow one’s natural inclination to “set the record straight,” the trained caregiver knows to direct the conversation toward the comforting feelings evoked by those deep-seated memories, and to respond to the individual in a positive way.

As the disease progresses, functioning becomes increasingly impaired and people suffering with Alzheimer’s become more dependent on CareGivers for help with everyday tasks such as dressing, washing and even eating. And with this dependency comes an increased demand for safety. For these reasons and a host of others, Alzheimer’s disease places extraordinary demands on caregivers

The strange mix of symptoms and behaviors requires an exceptional level of patience and understanding, a unique combination of skills, and a specialized setting to ensure proper care. Initially, with only the very best of intentions, family members often set out to care for the person with Alzheimer’s themselves. As respected members of the family, and precisely because they enjoy a relationship with the individual that is personal and unique, they feel no one is in a better position than they are to provide the kind of attention and care their loved one needs. But if they are being true to their loved one and honest with themselves, even the most devoted and caring family member soon comes to the realization that trying to provide such specialized care is not only impractical but frequently counter-productive.

Of the nearly 90 percent of Alzheimer’s family caregivers, more than 40 percent rate the emotional stress of their efforts as “high” or “very high.” What’s worse, approximately one-third demonstrate symptoms of clinical depression. These figures suggest that, contrary to serving everyone’s best interests, efforts to provide care at home often result in a situation that not only fails to benefit the family member with the disease, but is actually detrimental to the health and well-being of everyone concerned — including the primary caregiver and other members of the household.

Once the disease progresses to the stage where families recognize they need outside help, their obvious first priority is to find a provider who can deliver the high level of individualized attention and care their loved one needs in an environment best suited for people with dementia.

In quality medical care, as a general rule, bigger is better. Where memory loss is concerned, the opposite is more often true. Medical studies and firsthand experience have shown us that social interaction is absolutely essential in caring for people with Alzheimer’s. At the same time, we recognize that personal space, an individualized schedule filled with familiar elements, and one-on-one communication can be achieved only in a non-institutional setting in which the person suffering with dementia remains an individual. When dealing with those suffering from dementia, it is important to encourage their independence and self-sufficiency – to foster self-respect.

In addition to loss of memory, Alzheimer’s disease brings about loss of judgment and communication skills. As the disease progresses, physical coordination diminishes and the person with Alzheimer’s faces increased risk of injury, becoming disoriented, or wandering off. A proper caregiving environment takes all of these factors into account – not only in its physical layout and planning, but also in staffing and daily operations.

The bottom line is that for someone suffering with Alzheimer’s or a related form of dementia, care is best provided in a secure, home-like environment with familiar surroundings and a high ratio of CareGivers to Residents. Such a specialized environment provides the greatest opportunity for individual attention and interaction on the one hand, and conversely, it offers the least chance of harm or injury to the person with the disease. 

For more information about caring for your loved one with Alzheimer’s, call ComfortCare Homes at 316-685-3322.

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