Living with Alzheimer's is challenging, and watching the disease progress in a loved one can be extremely difficult for caregivers. Dementia causes sensory capabilities to decline. Even when older people are not experiencing problems with vision or hearing, they may have difficulty interpreting what they see and hear. They might, for instance, have trouble with depth perception when navigating stairs or become easily confused in a noisy crowd. As cognitive functioning declines, communication becomes more difficult. You may notice that the person exhibits signs of depression or aggressive behavior. At times it can seem overwhelming, but you can take practical steps to enhance the quality of life for your loved one. Involving the elder in daily activities and adapting his environment will maximize his/her independence and help him/her feel more connected to his surroundings.
Engage Your Older Loved One
A person with Alzheimer's may tend to withdraw or become easily agitated. People in the early stages of the disease report that they often experience feelings of isolation. While they may struggle with making their feelings known, they still want to socialize with friends and family members. Make conversation more manageable by not asking too many questions or providing too much information at once. Be patient. Give the older person time to gather their thoughts. Be willing to repeat yourself or give clarification. People with Alzheimer's benefit greatly from frequent interaction.
Help seniors to participate, as much as possible, in the same activities they enjoyed when they were healthier. Run errands and attend community events together. Encourage them to be as independent as they can. When they require supervision for certain tasks, like cooking, it may seem easier to just do these things for them. Yet remaining as self-sufficient as possible can offset feelings of loneliness and frustration.
Establish routines to incorporate structure into the older person's day. Complete activities on a regular schedule to help your loved one anticipate what's going to happen. Set aside time for hobbies and regular exercise, too. Staying mobile and active allows the older person to optimize remaining capabilities.
Manage Changes in Mood and Behavior
People experiencing dementia may withdraw or become combative. It's important not to argue or reason with a person who is suffering memory loss. Instead, reassure him that he is safe and being taken care of. Try to divert his attention to something else, perhaps with music, dancing, or a favorite book. Revisit his favorite pastimes and memories.
Pay attention to feelings rather than words, especially if the person has difficulty verbalizing thoughts and emotions. Facial expressions and other cues will help you gauge how your loved one is feeling.
Arrange for someone else to take over caregiving responsibilities periodically so you can take time to recharge.
Caregivers must also keep your own mental health in mind— Take a look at our guide to Self-Care and Stress-Management:
Adapt the Home
Getting around in their own home becomes increasingly difficult for people with Alzheimer's. Fortunately, you can adapt the environment to make things a bit easier for your loved one.
Simplify. Get rid of clutter. An environment that is too "busy" can be especially confusing. A few modifications can help elders compensate for losses in sensory functioning.
- Place brightly-colored tape on stair edges.
- Use plates and placemats with contrasting colors.
- Mark the bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen with brightly-colored signs (with words or pictures) to help your loved one remain oriented in the home.
- Keep the number of mirrors in the home to a minimum, as people with Alzheimer's may see their reflection and think there is another person in the room.
- Turn the television volume to a moderate level.
- Keep windows closed if outside noise is causing your loved one to become agitated.
- Try to limit how many visitors you have at one time, as too many conversations in one room can be especially frustrating for someone with Alzheimer's.
Take safety precautions. Your loved one is likely to find it increasingly difficult to recognize potentially dangerous situations.
- Make sure the bedrooms and kitchen are equipped with smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
- Use safety knobs on the stove.
- Unplug appliances when they're not being used.
- Label hot and cold water faucets and test the temperature before the older person gets into the shower or bath.
- Pad any furniture that has sharp edges.
- Use rugs with nonskid backing or secure them to the floor with double-sided tape.
- Make sure both sides of stairways are equipped with sturdy hand rails, and place gates in front of the stairs if your loved one has problems with balance.
- Keep doors locked if the person has a tendency to wander off.
- Tape cords to the baseboard instead of leaving them on the floor where someone might trip over them.
- Lock up cleaning supplies, personal hygiene products, and other items that could pose hazards if consumed.
- Place outlet covers over unused plugs.
- Keep a list of important phone numbers next to each phone in the house. Also, write down your loved one's address and phone number in case he needs to summon help and can't remember these details.
Pay Attention to Health Concerns
Be on the lookout for changes in physical and mental health. Some of the behaviors displayed by people with Alzheimer's can be managed with medication. Be sure the older person faithfully attends doctor's appointments, especially if she's contending with other health issues. Have her evaluated for hearing aids or mobility devices if you think these might be necessary.
Those with Alzheimer's are prone to pacing. If this is the case for your loved one, make sure she has sturdy shoes and eats a balanced diet so she has plenty of stamina for walking.
Helping seniors grapple with an Alzheimer's diagnosis takes time and patience. You probably won't need to make all these changes at once, but you can periodically evaluate your situation and make adjustments accordingly. Getting the support you need and taking proactive steps to help your loved one cope will make things easier for both of you.
While the care provided for a loved one is extremely important, caregivers must also keep your own mental health in mind. Take a look at our Guide to Self-Care and Stress-Management: