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How to Cope When a Loved One Has Alzheimer’s

By Karen Williams, LIMHP November 05, 2014 Posted in: Mental Health

Alzheimer’s disease occurs in the brain, mostly in older adults, resulting in a decrease in one’s ability to remember things. This disease is progressive and has an increasingly significant impact on how a person thinks, speaks and makes decisions. The loss of intellectual functioning does get worse over time, leaving family and loved ones to make some fairly big decisions regarding how to properly care for their loved one.

Oftentimes, family members feel they can do it all on their own or that asking for help is somehow a sign of something wrong within their family or a sign of personal weakness. As a health care provider, I have spoken with family members who feel shame and guilt for even considering requesting information about home health care or going to tour a long-term care facility.

Many years ago, I assisted a family in making the decision to place their mom in long-term care. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s but the family decided they could manage her at home. Unfortunately, their mom’s sleep cycle was getting more and more off track. She started getting up in the middle of the night trying to cook things, thinking it was morning and time for breakfast. The real turning point, however, came when she got up one night and took the car out for a drive. She drove several miles and apparently could not remember how to get home. The family called the police and their mom was returned to the home safely – but it resulted in a difficult, but necessary, conversation regarding what this family could and could not provide for her. The day their mom was moved into the memory-care facility, more than one family member told me of their sadness in having to make this decision, but they also felt relief knowing that their mom was now in a safe place, cared for around the clock.

Relief can also come in the form of being able to return to normal routines - like taking care of your own children or grandchildren, returning to work, buying groceries or getting a good nights’ sleep. These are just a handful of things that get placed on the back burner when caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.

For some family members, it does seem to take a while to adjust to the notion that their loved one is safe and that it’s okay to return their attention to their own lives. Their loved one might be in a memory-care facility or there might be in-home services. Part of the adjustment of moving someone to a memory-care facility or having home health care services provided is a new understanding that they are actually still providing care – but that it’s different now. With professionals to care for the bathing, meals, medicines and other activities of daily living, family caregiving takes on a new role – that of love, support, and just being there spending time. Now family caregivers can offer their loved one time for conversation, holding hands, laughing at something on television or just being together.

Whether a family chooses in-home care or a long-term/memory-care facility, there are some things that family caregivers can do. I found the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America website to be extremely helpful and filled with information. Here are just a few of their suggestions for how to help your loved one:

  • Adjust your expectations of what your loved one can really do at this point in their life.
  • Educate yourself about Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Do cognitive stimulation activities, such as listening to music or word games.
  • Be involved with your loved one’s medical providers – ask questions about treatment options, express your concerns.
  • Hug your loved one – this helps them feel loved and connected.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America also had some great suggestions for how to take care of yourself along the way. Here are just a few of their suggestions:

  • Make time for yourself with hobbies, a caregiver support group, pursuing some of your own interests that you may have put on hold.
  • Maintain your own physical and mental health – get some exercise, eat right, get enough sleep.
  • Talk to your own doctor about what’s going on so they can support you.
  • Think positive and focus on your loved one’s current strengths and abilities.
  • Reach out for more help if you need – the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has a toll-free number at (866) 232-8484.

It’s not easy coping with this. Having a loved one with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can be extremely challenging. But there is lots of help available. There are books, blogs, chat rooms, and lots of online resources. Many communities have support groups, and some long-term care facilities offer their own support groups and informational talks by local experts. This is a great way to receive support, meet others who are going through the same thing, and realize you are not in this alone. Remember, it’s okay to ask for help.

Karen Williams, LIMHP
Karen Williams, LIMHP

Karen Williams, LIMHP is a Mental Health provider at CHI Health.

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