First, Alzheimer’s disease is considered a progressive neurodegenerative illness, which means that the illness will cause more and more brain cells to become damaged over time. The result of this ongoing brain damage is a continual loss in the ability to think and function correctly. Alzheimer’s disease affects the whole brain in time, but not all at once. This is why in the early stages there are minor symptoms in some areas of functioning, and later in the illness there are major symptoms in nearly all areas of functioning. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, all of the available medical treatments approved by the FDA may slow the progression of symptoms of the illness, but do not reverse the damage and fix the symptoms.
The important aspect of this disease to recognize is that no case of Alzheimer’s disease is the same. In general, symptoms typically progress two to 20 years, with an average of eight years. There are certain symptoms that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease—but, again, they do not appear in every individual. These include a loss of short term memory (what they ate for breakfast or what was said five minutes ago), problems expressing thoughts or comprehending requests (trouble finding the right words or calling something by the wrong name), difficulty or inability to carry out activities of daily living (dressing, bathing, paying bills), changes in personality (becoming aggressive when they were always mild-mannered), confusion or disorientation to time, place, or person, unexplainable mood swings, loss of initiative in starting or completing activities, aggression, agitation, and depression. People with Alzheimer’s disease tend to experience confusion and disorientation, which can influence their perception of reality.
The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America recently released a Harris Interactive survey, “Alzheimer’s Caregivers: Behavioral Vs. Cognitive Symptoms,” which will provide you with more insight into symptoms and how caregivers are coping. One major finding is that the majority of caregivers cope by talking to family and friends, and doing physical and mental activities. You can read the survey findings at: http://www.alzfdn.org/Surve /Alzheimer%27s%20Caregivers%20Study%20090612.pdf
Along these lines, there are multiple resources that can help individuals cope with this disease process. Getting educated is a big starting point—whether by attending educational conferences, reading Web sites, obtaining information from national and local Alzheimer’s groups, etc. Support groups are an enormous help. Support groups not only provide a source of helpful information and tips on care strategies and services, but they also offer a safe and confidential place to simply unload some of the intense emotions brought on by the caregiving role. Many qualified professionals, such as social workers and nurses, offer support groups at various community settings. In addition, individuals find going to 1:1 therapy helps alleviate the stress, anger, and frustrations when caring for an individual with Alzheimer’s disease. Lastly, it is important for caregivers to focus on their self-care so that they have the energy and health needed to continue caring for their loved ones. Many caregivers find exercising, eating a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep will alleviate some of the stress brought on by caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Having a strong support network, such as friends, family and colleagues is important, because these relations can provide emotional support when necessary.