Every 65 seconds, someone’s mother, father, sister or brother is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This 2019 statistic from the Alzheimer’s Association is shared by Wendy Briggs, director of Memory Care and Life Enrichment at Advantage Living Centers (ALC), a Southfield-based organization with assisted living, rehabilitation and skilled nursing centers in Macomb, Wayne and Calhoun counties.
“Dementia is not a normal part of aging, and it is an umbrella term for numerous brain diseases,” Briggs says. “Alzheimer’s disease is the most-diagnosed form of dementia.” While age of dementia onset is unique to each person affected, health care professionals are making diagnoses at earlier ages. “Years back, we didn’t see diagnoses until seventies or eighties, but over the last 10 to 15 years, we have seen early-onset dementia diagnoses before the age of 65,” she says. Briggs offers some common early symptoms, and suggestions for what to do next if you suspect your own parent or loved one is affected.
Difficulty finding words. It’s a common symptom, Briggs says. “They struggle to come out with the word they want to say. For example, they want to say ‘home,’ but they may say a different word instead. Sometimes they make up their own words, just to keep the smooth rhythm of the conversation.”
Withdrawal. When it becomes difficult to remember names and conversations become strained, individuals may stop attending clubs and social gatherings they used to enjoy. “Church is one of them,” Briggs says.
Misplacing objects. Although normal from time to time, when a loved one is unable to retrace their steps to find lost keys or a hairbrush, this is a cause for concern, Briggs says. “Sometimes, individuals are trying to keep their possessions safe, so they put them where no one will think to look. Like a checkbook in the freezer. Or they may misidentify a toothbrush for something else, so it goes in the freezer,” she says. All point to a diminished ability to identify and connect items with their purpose.
Trouble sequencing. “An example is knowing in what order to get dressed,” Briggs says. “Sometimes loved ones may come out with their sock over their shoe, or their undergarment over their shirt.”
Visual and spatial changes. One reason for frequent falls in seniors is a change in spatial perception or vision. “Early on, vision is much like it would be if they were wearing a scuba mask, but later, it reduces to a sort of binocular vision, as peripheral vision decreases,” Briggs says.
Help for families
Concerned family members should arrange for an assessment by a medical specialist. “They should seek a geriatric assessment center because they specialize in this disease, and may also be more compassionate as well,” Briggs says. Early diagnosis offers the best opportunities for early conversations and decisions that include the wants and needs of the person most affected, she adds.
Caregivers play an important role for those with dementia, and education about the disease and what to expect are critical, says Krystal Milosek, marketing manager with ALC. “A person can get frustrated as a caregiver because they just don’t understand what their loved one is going through,” Milosek says.
Caregivers can learn techniques to help work with common behaviors associated with Dementia. Repetitive questions, accusations, and personality changes can be distressing to caregivers and lead to frustration. Correcting the behavior and trying to bring the person into reality can lead to further deterioration in behaviors. Techniques such as validation (empathizing with how the person feels) and embracing the person’s reality (basically going along with it) can be reassuring and calming to your family member.
Therapies can lessen the negative impact of the disease. Pet therapy, music therapy, and the re-creation of activities embedded in the individual’s memories (i.e. folding clothes, painting objects) can accompany medical therapies, if appropriate. Routines also help to create a safe environment.
A key struggle families face occurs when caregiving responsibilities get too heavy or the person with Dementia creates unsafe situations such as wandering outside or turning on the stove and forgetting about it. Family and friends can help! Letting them know your needs may solicit offers of assistance and should be accepted.
Considering placement in an assisted living or nursing facility is associated with feelings of guilt or sense of personal failure. But there are options. Leaving the care to professionals trained in caring for people with Dementia is a solution to consider. Adult day programs, residential living, or specialized Memory Care programs are designed to therapeutically care for people while allowing families to create memories in a more relaxing atmosphere.
Learn more about Advantage Living Centers at advantageliving.net.