“What Is Alzheimer’s?”: 3 Ways of Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease
“What is Alzheimer’s?” This question, in one form or another, is one of the most frequently asked questions in the field of senior care. If you’ve asked this question, you’ve probably received an answer like the one below, taken from our “What is Alzheimer’s” FAQ:
“Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disorder that is characterized by memory loss, cognitive decline, and behavioral changes. Alzheimer’s is a progressive, degenerative disease. Symptoms worsen over time, usually over the course of several years. Roughly 5.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, the vast majority of whom are over the age of 65.”
This answer covers the basic facts of Alzheimer’s disease. But if you or someone you love has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, this type of answer won’t tell you what you really need to know. You’ll still be left with questions like: How is Alzheimer’s going to affect my day-to-day life? How will it change me or my loved one? What can I do to make the disease more manageable?
Ultimately, your understanding of Alzheimer’s disease will depend on your relationship to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Below, we look at three ways of answering the question, “What is Alzheimer’s disease?” from three different perspectives.
“What is Alzheimer’s?” — An Answer for the Recently Diagnosed
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the question “What is Alzheimer’s?” has deeply personal connotations. Adults in the early stages of Alzheimer’s want to know how the disease will affect their mind, routine, and relationships, along with what they can do to preserve
In the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, individuals are often able to maintain independence or “assisted independence.” Most of day-to-day life goes on as usual, but with moments of confusion or forgetfulness. You might forget what you were doing in the middle of a task, or have trouble remembering a commonly used word. These moments can trigger feelings of confusion, frustration, or anger. At times you might need a helping hand from your spouse, a family member, or a friend to complete everyday tasks.
Over time, Alzheimer’s progresses from mild to moderate dementia. When this happens, life becomes much more moment-to-moment. You will start to lose old memories and you will struggle to form new ones. Numerous everyday tasks may become impossible for you to perform on your own, meaning you will come to rely on the support of others. Your vocabulary and understanding of language will shrink, to the point where you have trouble understanding others and others
Your memory, language skills, and physical health will decline further and further. Eventually, you will transition into late-stage Alzheimer’s. At this point, you will have little-to-no understanding of your surroundings, and you will require constant care from family or professionals.
Despite this prognosis, there are steps you can take to preserve your quality of life and your relationships with others for as long as possible. Diet, physical activity, mental exercises, and a low-stress lifestyle can help slow cognitive decline. Familiarity will make life easier, more enjoyable, and less stressful, so focus on familiar routines, familiar settings, and spending time with family and friends.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help if help is needed. Accepting assistance from others will not only make your life easier but could be essential to your long-term cognitive and physical wellbeing.
“What is Alzheimer’s?” — An Answer for Family and Friends
If you are the friend or a family member of someone with Alzheimer’s, the answer to “What is Alzheimer’s” will be different from your loved one. You will want to understand what Alzheimer’s is in a way that allows you to care for your loved one, continue your relationship, and understand any changes to his or her personality.
As a spouse, family member, or friend, it’s particularly important that you understand how Alzheimer’s changes a person’s mind and thought process. Without a solid understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, you could inadvertently make life more stressful or difficult for your loved one.
It is important to understand, for instance, that Alzheimer’s cannot be fixed or reversed. If a person has trouble with a task or begins to mix-up words, there’s no use in trying to correct them. It will only make them more confused, frustrated, and/or embarrassed.
Likewise, if your loved one starts to forget cherished memories, or begins to confuse you with somebody else, this should not be taken personally. You loved one has no control over the memories they lose or the ways that wires become crossed due to Alzheimer’s. The disease is to blame, not your loved one.
For a more detailed understanding of what Alzheimer’s is, how you can care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, and what you can do to take care of your own well-being in this situation, we recommend further reading or joining a local support group. Researchers have found that these steps make a world of difference for the spouses and close family members of Alzheimer’s sufferers.
“What Is Alzheimer’s?” — An Answer for Caregivers
If you’re a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s — either as an unpaid caregiver for a family member or as an Alzheimer’s care professional — you will need a strong understanding of what Alzheimer’s is and how it can be managed.
Caring for an individual with Alzheimer’s requires a different set of skills than other types of home care. Caregivers need to use distinct and often counterintuitive strategies to manage moments of anger, fear, and confusion. They also need to know what factors most improve the quality of life for Alzheimer’s sufferers, like a regular routine or familiar surroundings.
Communication is another challenging area. As language skills fade, it becomes harder and harder for Alzheimer’s sufferers to communicate. Professional caregivers learn how to identify verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, and to interpret the needs of Alzheimer’s care recipients.
This is something that we understand deeply at Visiting Angels. We developed a distinct Alzheimer’s care program to make sure that care providers are knowledgeable about what Alzheimer’s is and how to care for individuals coping with early-, mid-, and late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. This program, developed with support from the Alzheimer’s Association, has helped Visiting Angels become a leading provider of Alzheimer’s care services throughout the United States.