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Nextavenue.org: By Amy Florian
You’re worried. Your mom has shown increasing forgetfulness for months. She even got lost going to the grocery store
she frequents. You hoped things would resolve themselves, but instead, they kept getting worse. You took her to the
doctor, hoping the problem was due to a bad interaction of her many medicines or a treatable infection. Instead, you
got the dreaded diagnosis — Alzheimer’s disease.
While the news can be shocking, you can help yourself and your loved one by following the tips below. But first, a little
about the disease.
Alzheimer’s is the primary dementia-causing illness in the United States. (There are over 15 others.) The effects are
not restricted to memory, but instead impair every aspect of function and personality. The disease relentlessly
progresses over time, literally shrinking the brain to the point where patients can lose the ability to recognize family
members, button a button, feed themselves, walk or even swallow. There is no cure. Patients live an average of two
to eight years after diagnosis.
Therefore, time is precious. So what can you begin to do immediately to prepare yourself, the family and your mom for
what is surely coming? The following steps can help. (Also, be sure to tune in to the PBS documentary Alzheimer’s:
Every Minute Counts, airing nationally at 10 p.m. ET on Jan. 25.)
Start by contacting your local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. It has a wealth of free brochures and insightful
information for the patient and the family. The larger chapters even conduct an in-home care consultation to assist in
determining the best care options.
Ask your mom about her childhood, any pets she had, her early adult life, how she met your dad, what it was like
when you were born and events that shaped her life.
Get professional assistance in coordinating care by finding geriatric care managers and doctors specializing in
Locate adult day care services (where you take your parent for a period of time) or respite care services (people who
come into the home). Investigate the memory care facilities in the area, so you know what is available and what costs
are involved if it becomes necessary to move your parent.
Think about your social networks. Are there people, perhaps at your place of worship or in your mom’s friendship
circle, who can help with errands, meals, home maintenance tasks and other necessities?
Look for support groups. Caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s is demanding, exhausting and eventually all-
consuming. It can be a tremendous benefit to talk with others in the same situation.
At the same time, start gathering your parent’s important documents and data, including things such as:
Ensure you also know passwords to parent’s computer, cell phone and all online and social media accounts. Keep all
these in a secure and centralized location.
Since short-term memory is affected well before long-term memory, your mom may clearly remember something from
50 years ago but have trouble recalling what happened yesterday. As the disease progresses, the long-term memories
will begin to disappear too, until there is nothing but the present moment, but there is usually a significant amount of
time in between.
In those early stages, then, make an effort to collect and record long-term memories. Ask your mom about her
childhood, any pets she had, her early adult life, how she met your dad, what it was like when you were born and
events that shaped her life. Discover, too, her favorite songs and hymns from various points in her history, since
music recognition is retained longer than data.
Then, even when her short-term memory is fading or gone, you’ll have plenty to discuss. You can make her smile,
sing some of her favorite songs, laugh over her teen-year stories and maintain a stronger relationship. This is an
effective strategy to stay connected for as long as possible.
A nice side benefit: You’ll learn things about your mom you never knew before!
Participating in the same things that brought enjoyment in the past has been proven to relieve stress and increase the
satisfaction level of Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.
So if you enjoyed going on walks with your mom, plan to go for walks. If you cooked together, keep it up (as long as
you can do so safely). If you ate ice cream as a special treat, regularly enjoy a cone. Don’t let simple pleasures go
away just because your mom may not remember.
Many families try to keep their loved one at home as long as possible. If that is your goal, make reasoned plans. Start
by examining her living space. Remove throw rugs and tripping hazards. Install grab bars and handrails. Determine
how to lock outer doors to prevent wandering. Minimize stair use.
Then think about personnel. Is there someone to act as full-time caregiver? Who else in the family will help and in
what ways? Will the caregiver be fairly compensated, especially if the burdens of care are uneven in the family?
Recognize limitations. For everyone’s sanity, it may eventually be necessary to move your mom to a memory care
facility. It is helpful to list decision-triggering conditions ahead of time. This can be guided by the doctor,
representatives from the Alzheimer’s Association, a geriatric care manager or others with experience caring for
Most people think grief begins with a death. That’s not true. You grieve from the moment you get the Alzheimer’s
diagnosis. Then grief continues as you lose your mom inch by inch. In other words, grief will be a constant companion
on the road ahead.
To cope, allow whatever emotions arise, finding safe and non-hurtful ways to express sadness, anger, loss and
frustration. Consider keeping a journal; it is cathartic to write and it helps you record the experience.
Make sure you care for yourself as well as your mom — eating healthily, getting adequate sleep and finding people
who will listen, empathize and act as sounding boards. Remember: it is not your job to be perfect; it is your job to
companion your mom to the best of your ability.
All of these steps can help you manage an Alzheimer’s diagnosis in the initial stages. The challenges will grow with
the progression of the disease, but you will have a solid foundation on which to build as you slowly say goodbye
and walk your mom through her illness.
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