Small steps can help caregivers cope when dealing with Alzheimer’s patients
To assist her mother in finding the bathroom inside their Hinsdale home, Draddy laid out blue painter’s tape on the floor to act as a pathway.
“I would tell her to follow the tape,” said Draddy, 50, who took care of her mother, Annette, for a year in 2008. “Sometimes you have to think out of the box, but it involves a lot of trial and error to find out what works for Alzheimer’s patients.”
Most Alzheimer’s disease patients exhibit different types of behaviors, and health experts recommend that caretakers explore various coping techniques that might help the patient respond better to the disease. Organizations such as theAlzheimer’s Association also advise caretakers to educate themselves about the disease, which might help them understand why patients act the way they do.
An estimated 5.2 million people age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, which is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Because of an expected large increase in the elderly population, 13.5 million people will have Alzheimer’s disease by the year 2050.
Danielle Dodson, care navigator and clinical supervisor with the Alzheimer’s Association, suggests caretakers consider the different factors in the patient’s environment that might trigger certain behaviors.
Many Alzheimer’s patients experience disorientation and stress late in the afternoon and during the evening, a term called “sundowning” by some in the medical community. Experts don’t really understand why, but Dodson believes it might have something to do with a fear of darkness.
“Simply trying different things like changing the lighting or putting on more lights in the house might help,” Dodson said. “Maybe try telling them that everything is OK, put on some calming music. Things like that might make the patient relax.”
Dodson said many Alzheimer’s patients can’t communicate effectively and might act up because they are scared or believe something is wrong.
“They might, for example, always be looking for their keys or may even accuse people of stealing,” Dodson said.
One of the most important things Dodson recommends for caretakers is to restrain themselves from arguing with patients.
“They believe what they are saying to be reality,” she said. “Try to defuse the issue. If they say, ‘You never come to see me,’ say, ‘Sorry,’ and just let it go.”
Dodson said Alzheimer’s patients often feel better following a daily routine.
“Having a glass of milk, going for a walk or even brushing their teeth at a certain time may help them get a good night’s sleep and feel better during the day,” Dodson said.
Lauren Bruggenthies-Lott, educator with Passages Hospice in Lisle, said several nurses at the agency are trying a new coping method with their patients. They are collecting items to make “rummage bags” for Alzheimer’s patients. The idea behind the rummage bags is to include items of interest for the patients to keep their minds occupied and calm while they look through the bags and talk about the different items with the caretaker.
“If the patient was a farmer, we might want to include photographs of gardening gloves and farm animals,” Bruggenthies-Lott said. “It also can help with developing a conversation. If there is a picture of a cow, you can ask that person if they had a cow on the farm.”
Bruggenthies-Lott said some caretakers should also consider including items that patients obsess over, like a purse or a pair of old keys, if that is what they are always talking or stressing about.
“Those items may help decrease agitation,” Bruggenthies-Lott said. “The idea is to see what works and doesn’t work for the patient.”
The Heartwell Memory Support Assisted Living facility in Chicago, which is part of the Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services organization, offers a free Alzheimer’s and dementia support group on the first Wednesday of the month for caregivers.
Heartwell Director Janette Foley said building a support network and learning about the disease will make coping easier for patients and caregivers.
“Most caregivers are going to need help,” Foley said. “One thing is for the caregiver to reach out to other family members for assistance. Everyone needs a little free time.”
A recent study from the Alzheimer’s Association indicates that caring for an individual with the disease can have a negative effect on employment, income and financial security.
Foley said there are two important ideas a newcomer will take away from their support group. The first is the idea of joining the patient in their reality.
“If they say it’s the year 1943, it is 1943,” Foley said. “Trying to orientate them to our reality only causes anger and stress to escalate.”
Foley’s second suggestion is to keep the patient active. She said while there is no medical evidence that keeping an Alzheimer’s patient active helps, many think it slows the progression of the disease.
“If it doesn’t work, at least the patient is having a joyous time,” Foley said.
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