If you're caring for a parent with Alzheimer's disease, you already know that the condition can seem like a very dark mystery with wonderful moments of sunshine. Watching my own grandmother descend into Alzheimer's while I was in college is what led me to a career devoted to helping other families deal with the heartache and challenges associated with this disease.
One of the most important things caregivers can do when they first find out that a parent has Alzheimer's is to learn everything they can about the condition. Here are 8 things you need to know about Alzheimer's disease to help you provide the best care for your parent:
- Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain that impacts memory, thinking, judgment, behavior, and daily functioning.
- Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia. There are several other causes of dementia, such as Parkinson's disease, stroke, Lewy body disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but they aren't as common as Alzheimer's.
- Although people with Alzheimer's do not look physically sick until the later stages of the disease, it's important to remember that Alzheimer's is as much of a medical condition as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. It is not a psychological weakness or simply what happens as we get old.
- Scientists are not sure what causes Alzheimer's disease, but as more and more research is conducted, it appears that - like many other diseases - whether or not someone develops Alzheimer's has to do with a combination of both genetics (heredity) and environmental factors (diet, exercise, education, exposure to toxins, etc.). There is not just one cause, which makes it very hard to find a cure.
- Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, there are a variety of FDA-approved treatments that postpone the worsening of symptoms for 6-12 months in about half of the people who take them. Many other treatments are under investigation but are not currently available to the general public.
- Research shows that getting plenty of physical exercise, eating a heart-healthy diet, keeping the mind active, and staying connected with family and friends are good for the brain and may help prevent or delay Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.
- Alzheimer's disease can result in behavioral symptoms such as agitation, suspiciousness, combativeness, repetition, and wandering. If your parent experiences behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, it's important to remember that the symptoms are caused by damage to the brain and are not something that your parent can control or prevent. This can be hard to remember in the moment, but doing so will make life better for you and your parent.
- Believe it or not, there can be bright sides to Alzheimer's disease. In the moving documentary, There is a Bridge, the Memory Bridge Foundation met with real families who said that caring for a family member with Alzheimer's disease brought the family closer together and provided opportunities to forgive and foster authentic communication that hadn't been possible before the disease.
These things you need to know about Alzheimer's disease only scratch the surface of what caregivers need about caring for their parents. I'll be writing a lot more about this in the future, but I'd like to hear from you about what are the things you need to know about Alzheimer's disease. What are your questions, challenges, and mysteries? Post a comment to this blog and share your thoughts with the community; this will help me plan what to write about down the road.
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--Carrie L. Hill Ph.D