Dementia is a collection of symptoms that affect how effectively our brains work. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, causing problems with memory, cognition, behaviour, and ability to perform daily tasks. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, resulting in symptom severity over time. Some risk factors include age, genetic inheritance, and environmental factors, among others. Although people can have a younger age onset of Alzheimer’s, as people get older the chances of developing Alzheimer’s increase.
Although symptoms of Alzheimer’s present uniquely for each person, there are some common features. In the early stages, people may experience difficulty with short-term memory. Progressively, they may experience difficulty remembering names of people, places, and appointments, difficulty managing tasks, have a lack of initiative for activities or tasks, experience emotional changes such as becoming more irritable or frustrated, experience personality changes, and difficulty in communication. This blog focuses on a few common challenges people living with Alzheimer’s face, and the ways in which we can be supportive towards people living with Alzheimer’s.
It is absolutely normal to feel a wide range of emotions after you or a whānau member has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Remember that any change requires adjustment, and most adjustments are accompanied by a range of emotions- there is no one way of reacting to an adjustment. Whether it is a grief reaction that follows or increased anxiety, try not to deny your feelings, and allow yourself to accept and feel all your emotions. Being kind and patient with yourself, whether you are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or are a carer for someone living with Alzheimer’s, is one of the key helpful aspects on this journey. Processing feelings as the caregiver can enable increased compassion towards the person with Alzheimer’s.
With the progression of Alzheimer’s, communication difficulties and the inability to express what one truly needs or feels become more enhanced. Some communication difficulties include struggling to find the correct words to use, processing and understanding what is being said, reading and writing troubles, and not understanding social conventions of interactions. With the intention of being patient towards people with Alzheimer’s, we can try to use body language to assist with communication. This can mean using facial expressions, hand gestures, pointing towards objects to help get the message across. Adhering to the basic principles of respect for dignity and autonomy of people with Alzheimer’s, be patient and allow them time to finish their sentences without attempting to interrupt. Other tips to aid communication include using repetition as necessary, listening attentively, and always including the person in the conversation when they are physically present.
Keeping active can increase quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s, provide them with a sense of purpose, and a sense of joy. Activities planned with them can be similar to what they enjoyed prior to the diagnosis, be able to promote self-esteem, involve skills that the person retains, and foster social connections. Planning activities can include responsibilities for self or for the house, based on skills that the person already has, such as buttering bread or watering the plants. Break down activities into manageable steps. People with Alzheimer’s can experience challenges with visual perception and co-ordination, and therefore minimising distractions and altering the environment accordingly can help.
Being a caregiver or support person for someone with Alzheimer’s can be extremely rewarding, however, can also increase the risk of burnout. It is important for caregivers to pay special attention towards looking after themselves. Some ways to do this can be to become a part of a support group of Alzheimer’s carers, which can help in connection with other Alzheimer’s carers through shared experiences. Engaging in self-care, and practicing relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing are some other ways to keep healthy, whilst being a carer. Talking to someone, such as a trusted friend, family member or a professional like a therapist can also be extremely cathartic.
It is truly important that we as a community, try our best to be as understanding, empathetic, and compassionate as possible towards people with Alzheimer’s. Being patient may not always come easy, however, there are a lot of support services and resources which can assist. Below is a list of websites where you can find resources for detailed information on Alzheimer’s, support for people with Alzheimer’s including support services, resources on how to plan care, and support for caregivers:
“Age Concern New Zealand is a charity dedicated to people over 65, their friends, and whānau. We promote dignity, wellbeing, equity and respect and provide expert information and support services in response to older people's needs.”
Elder Abuse Response Service (EARS): Freephone: 0800 32 668 65, Text: 5032