Caring for Yourself When a Loved One Has Alzheimer’s
As the baby boomer generation ages, more and more families will be affected by Alzheimer's disease. If you have a loved one with this progressive brain illness, remember to take time to care for yourself.
Know the Early Signs
Recognizing symptoms early can help you-and your loved one-prepare for the future. "An early diagnosis can give a family time to get used to the idea they're going to lose their loved one as they knew him or her," explains Veronica Deza, MD, Director of Geriatrics at MedStar Franklin Square. "You can talk about your loved one's goals and wishes while he or she can still make decisions." It's also important to see a doctor to rule out other health problems that can contribute to memory issues.
"Alzheimer's steals more than a person's memory of names or where the keys are," says Dr. Deza. "Symptoms such as asking the same question repeatedly, forgetting how to use a common tool or getting lost in your own neighborhood are likely to suggest Alzheimer's."
When Caring Becomes a Challenge
Diane Kretzschmar, RN, is a parish nurse at MedStar Franklin Square. She cared for her husband's mother who had Alzheimer's. Kretzschmar suggests these tips for coping with an affected loved one:
- Avoid arguing. Keep your voice soft and calm.
- Simplify activities. "My husband, the older children and I did Bible study with my mother-in-law after we could no longer bring her to church," Kretzschmar recalls.
- Identify and correct potential safety hazards in the home, such as where to keep medications.
You Need a Helping Hand
One of the most important lessons Kretzschmar learned was: You can't do it alone. It helps to talk with others who are experiencing the same situation. Eastern Baltimore County didn't always have an evening group for families coping with Alzheimer's. Beginning in 2009, Kretzschmar co-led a monthly support group at the Family Health Center, across the street from MedStar Franklin Square.
"It included an educational piece, sharing time and a fellowship period," she explains. "New members are always welcome."
Are You at Risk for Alzheimer's?
While scientists continue to search for a cure, they have identified risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's.
- Age. Increasing age is the greatest known risk factor. The likelihood of developing the disease doubles every five years after age 65.
- Family history. Alzheimer's tends to run in families. If more than one family member has had Alzheimer's, your risk increases.
- Genetics. Scientists know certain genes increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's or cause it.
Take steps to reduce your risk:
- Protect yourself from injury. Researchers have linked serious head injury and the future risk of developing Alzheimer's. So buckle up whenever you're in a vehicle.
- Keep your heart in good condition. Brain health is strongly linked to heart health. Alzheimer's risk can be increased by conditions that damage heart or blood vessels, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol. Work with your doctor to monitor and treat any problems that arise.
- Age healthfully. Maintain a healthy weight, avoid tobacco and excess alcohol, stay socially connected and exercise your body and mind.