The changes that go along with Alzheimer’s can make caring for a loved one with the disease difficult. Because Alzheimer’s, the most common type of dementia, is a progressive illness that causes irreversible brain damage, signs of Alzheimer’s include changes in memory, behavior, thinking, and other types of brain function. These changes can be frightening for both the caregiver and the person with Alzheimer’s.
Recognizing that the life-changing symptoms of Alzheimer’s are caused by the disease and not the person you’re caring for is often the first step to becoming a compassionate and effective caregiver. Finding new ways to approach your loved one’s needs can also help you handle your ever-changing role.
“Many caregivers mistake behavior changes for personality changes or stubbornness,” says Mary Corcoran, PhD, an occupational therapist and professor in the department of clinical research and leadership at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “They subscribe all kinds of other motives to changes in behavior that are actually due to changes in the brain.”
James Noble, MD, MS, a neurologist and assistant clinical professor of neurology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, agrees. “It’s always important for caregivers to recognize that this disease is beyond their control and it’s not their fault,” Dr. Noble says. Rather than dwelling on the negatives, he says, it’s best to focus on the “here and now” and what can be done on a daily basis to make the quality of life for your loved one as good as it can be.
Here are five ways to help your loved one with Alzheimer’s with common everyday challenges:
1. Look Beyond Repetitive Behaviors
Repetitive behavior, like asking the same question over and over, is a common issue among people with Alzheimer’s. People with Alzheimer’s may not remember what they just asked because of short-term memory loss caused by the disease, or there may be an emotional need behind the question.
Answering the question repeatedly doesn’t usually stop the behavior, so instead, Corcoran recommends addressing the emotion underlying the question. Understanding what your loved one is really trying to get out of that question can lead to a more successful solution.
In asking the same question over and over, a person with Alzheimer’s may be seeking assurance, connection with the caregiver, or other information. For example, if a person keeps asking whether the doors and windows are locked, he or she may be feeling anxious about safety.
Corcoran says that rather than saying, “Yes, yes, I did do that,” try easing your loved one’s anxiety with a response such as this: “I know it makes you feel very safe and cozy with the doors and windows locked. I’ve taken care of that. You can count on me.”
2. Forget About the Memory Lapses
Lapses in memory are one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and they occur with greater frequency and severity as the disease progresses. Noble says one of the hardest lessons for caregivers to learn is that there’s no benefit to challenging a person who can’t remember something or trying to jog their memory. “It’s best to move on and talk about something else,” he says.
3. Find Things You Both Enjoy Every Day
Corcoran says every caregiver has an individual style of caregiving, much like people have their own parenting or fashion styles. The challenge is to recognize your individual style and find a way to take care of your own needs as well as your loved one’s so you can both do the things you enjoy.
For example, a caregiver who’s focused on meeting the emotional needs of a loved one may enjoy turning bathing into a spa experience, with hand and foot massages, soothing music, or aromatherapy.
Other types of caregivers may want to hire someone to come in and take care of the bathing so they can devote their energies to other activities, like cooking or managing medical care.
One exercise Corcoran recommends to help caregivers make choices about daily activities is to create a spreadsheet with caregiving priorities in the first column and the interests of the care recipient in the top row. Then fill the cells in between with possibilities for activities where the two intersect.
Once you’ve narrowed down your activities, you can create a daily plan. Having a daily routine allows you to spend less time each day figuring out what to do and more time enjoying activities that provide a feeling of fulfillment for both of you.
4. Keep Things Simple
When planning a daily routine, try to keep tasks as familiar as possible. Things stored in the procedural memory, like brushing hair or teeth, are often easier for people with Alzheimer’s to remember than other tasks are.
Corcoran says people with Alzheimer’s often get confused or forget how to use more-modern tools, like electric toothbrushes or kitchen appliances. But their long-term procedural memory may still associate other, simpler items used in the past for these tasks.
“Think about what kind of objects they used at an earlier time,” Corcoran says. “Some detective work may be involved to figure out what is most familiar for them.”
The simple act of replacing an electric toothbrush with a manual one or an electric mixer with a hand beater may allow people with Alzheimer’s to continue to perform many tasks of daily living on their own.
5. Stay Active Together
Physical activity can help both the person with Alzheimer’s and the caregiver feel better in general. A A study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine published in April 2013 showed that people with Alzheimer’s disease who exercise at least one hour twice a week, either in a group or at home with a caregiver, experience fewer falls and a slower rate of decline in physical function than those who don’t exercise.
You can stay active together by:
•Taking a walk every day
•Adding music and dancing to your exercise routine if your loved one enjoys music
•Using exercise videos or DVDs designed for older people
•Walking a dog
“It’s hard to say if scientifically these things provide any benefits, but there’s little downside to such activities and far fewer side effects than any medications that can be prescribed,” Noble says.