When do regular forgetfulness and “senior moments” become something more – and how can you help an elderly loved one whose mental state worries you?

If your loved one loses keys, forgets a PIN or misplaces eyeglasses, the cause may be exhaustion, stress, conflicting medications or even vitamin deficiencies.

Local experts say the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease – an ultimately fatal form of dementia – include not just forgetfulness but also serious behavioral changes. Those changes include an inability to remember newly learned things, perform familiar tasks and find the right words, leading to suspicion, paranoia, confusion, and hygiene and nutritional problems.

“You’ll notice in conversations that they’ll just completely forget what they’re saying and move onto something different,” explained Jamie Lopez, Vice President of Nursing at Constant Care Family Management, which runs Autumn Leaves memory care communities in Texas and Illinois and was founded by a McKinney family.

One in eight Americans aged 65 and older has Alzheimer’s disease, and nearly half of those 85 and older have the disease. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, and the disease triggers memory, thinking and behavioral problems.

While the figures are stark, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s has led to better diagnostic tools so patients receive earlier diagnoses and medications that slow the progression of new symptoms. Helpful therapies are available, and more options are available to support caregivers. Many memory care professionals have had relatives with the disease, which drives their determination to help those with Alzheimer’s and the caregivers walking a similar path.

Obtaining a diagnosis; resources for caregivers

To obtain a diagnosis, start with the patient’s primary care physician – someone who has provided regular medical care. “Go to the doctor you’ve seen for years,” said Ruth Austin, Nursing Director at Emeritus at Stonebridge Ranch in McKinney which has assisted living and memory care communities throughout the United States. “The primary care physician would be faster to pick up cues of impaired cognition,” she said.

If the physician finds initial indicators, he or she probably will refer the patient to a neurologist or another specialist for comprehensive tests. The process generally includes brain scans, cognitive testing and interviewing caregivers about the patient’s behavior. “There are other things besides Alzheimer’s that can induce dementia – depression, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, vitamin deficiencies and different medications,” noted Lopez, who cared for a grandmother with Alzheimer’s.“There is a lot to look at to ensure an accurate diagnosis.”

Once a loved one is diagnosed, caregivers must quickly settle the patient’s legal, financial and medical paperwork, including powers of attorney and advanced medical directives. Caregivers should also arm themselves with knowledge about Alzheimer’s and find a support group.

“Get aggressive about educating yourself – don’t wait,” said Alex Nameth, owner/ director of Friends Place Adult Day Services in McKinney, a day-stay center he started in memory of his father, who died from Alzheimer’s disease. “Get out there and join a support group,” he said. “That’s the fastest way to get up to speed about the disease, to learn about what to do and what to expect. When my dad developed Alzheimer’s, I didn’t know who to go to. Now I tell everyone: find your local support groups.”

In McKinney, support groups meet regularly at Friends Place, Autumn Leaves and Emeritus at Stonebridge Ranch. All caregivers are welcome, whether or not their loved one receives services there. With a reservation at Friends Place, loved ones may participate in the center’s activities while caregivers attend the support meeting. In addition, the three facilities have resource rooms, recommended books, free literature for caregivers and experts to consult. Autumn Leaves offers a virtual dementia experience so caregivers can get a first-hand understanding of various impairments afflicting many dementia patients. And, the Alzheimer’s Association is the ultimate information clearinghouse about the disease. (See list at the end.)

“An Alzheimer’s diagnosis is the start of a long goodbye,” Austin said. Caregivers “will need to take care of themselves before they can meet the needs of their patient. It is a very hard road they are going to go down.”

Therapy for Alzheimer’s patients; coping strategies for caregivers

Local experts say several therapies and strategies are helpful for caregivers with an Alzheimer’s patient at home. Establish routines that are adhered to daily, because routines are soothing to Alzheimer’s patients. Socialization and interaction with loved ones, friends, familiar faces, children and even pets prove helpful as well. Alzheimer’s patients enjoy petting dogs and cats, and reminiscing about beloved family pets. Local experts recommend Heart of Texas Therapy Dogs, which provides individualized therapy on a case-by-case basis. Pet therapy is also available at Autumn Leaves, Emeritus at Stonebridge Ranch and Friends Place, as are other therapies, including art, gentle exercise and music.

“Music is deeply rooted in our brains,” Nameth said. “Singing songs they remember can be so stimulating. They’ll start tapping their toes as the music slowly works through them, and pretty soon they’re belting out a tune.”

Schedule brief trips early in the day, because Alzheimer’s symptoms worsen as the day wears on, said Sue Jennings, who cared for her mother with Alzheimer’s disease and serves as memory care director at Emeritus at Stonebridge Ranch. “Planning an outing so it’s beneficial to the patient and their loved one is really important,” Jennings said. “We recommend short visits – like going out to get ice cream.” Look at the patient’s surroundings with an eye for potential safety hazards. Add their neighbors to the support network.

“Communicate with their neighbors to let them know that they have Alzheimer’s,” Lopez recommended. “If the neighbors see them wandering, perhaps they can help and redirect them.”
The Alzheimer’s Association and MedicAlert offer a Safe Return Program for Alzheimer’s patients. GPS tracking tools are available for shoes and bracelets.

Perhaps the most important thing caregivers must do, experts say, is to join the Alzheimer’s patient’s journey. Go with the flow, speak gently, don’t argue with them about reality, and encourage their interests.

Consider what the Alzheimer’s patient might actually want, even when they cannot explain. “It’s a validation process,” Jennings said. “If someone is upset [and asking] ‘Where’s my mother?’ we want them to talk about mother, allow them to talk about what they’re feeling – maybe they needed a hug – and give them that feeling of love and compassion, to feel that nurturing.”

About the author: Holly Becka is Associate Editor of McKinney Magazine.

Resources:

  • Alzheimer’s Association, alz.org or alzdallas.org
  • Area Agency on Aging, nctcog.org/cs/aging/index.asp
  • Autumn Leaves of McKinney,972.542.0606, AutumnLeavesLiving.com
  • Collin County Committee on Aging, cccoaweb.org
  • Emeritus at Stonebridge Ranch, 972.529.1420, emeritus.com or emeritus.com/texas/mckinney/emeritusstonebridge-ranch
  • Friends Place Adult Day Services, 972-569-9000, FriendsPlaceADS.com/mckinney