Advice for Alzheimer’s Caregivers

Dec 17, 2018

Every day nearly 16 million Americans find themselves in a tough position they weren’t really prepared for—caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. In the medical community, they are often referred to as “informal caregivers” because they aren’t paid or professional care providers, but rather loving family members simply trying to do their best to help their loved one live with a devastating disease that over time will rob them of their memories, thinking skills, and ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

Nearly six million Americans are currently living with the degenerative and incurable brain disease. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that just over 16 million Americans are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. And the value of care provided by these informal caregivers was a staggering $232 billion in 2017. But Hedieh Davanloo, MD, a board-certified geriatrician with USMD Arlington North Clinic, sees the very real human toll the disease takes on these caregivers.

“It’s sad because the loved ones want to do everything they can, and many times they try to do it alone—which is exhausting and not always effective,” she says. “They get worn out because they’re often sleeping in the same room as their loved one and not getting enough rest. Or their loved one is agitated and uncooperative. It’s very difficult.”

Along with caring for Alzheimer’s patients, Dr. Davanloo tries to help family caregivers, too. “Just knowing what to expect immediately and into the future can help them plan ahead and be prepared,” she says. “It helps them cope with the situation.”

If you’re caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Davanloo offers this advice:

Ensure your loved one has been properly diagnosed.
While it’s true that dementia is more common in older people, it’s not a natural part of aging. In reality, memory loss can be caused by many different factors. “The most important thing is the correct diagnosis for your loved one,” Dr. Davanloo says. “Evaluation, neurocognitive screening and imaging by a physician are musts. Only a physician can determine if an individual suffers from Alzheimer’s or has another issue. Not all memory loss or functional change in the brain is Alzheimer’s.”

The right medication makes all the difference.
Often caregivers are stressed because their loved one is agitated, uncooperative or displaying other concerning behavior. “They may think, ‘Oh, this is just how it is,’ when it really may be a matter of adjusting the person’s medications,” Dr. Davanloo says. “Medications not only help slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s, they can help with behavior issues such as depression, anxiety, agitation and restlessness.

Still, it’s not uncommon for patients to be on the wrong medication or wrong combination of medications. “Just correcting their medication or clearing up bad drug interactions can help stabilize their memory while alleviating depression, anxiety, restlessness, which make it easier for the caregivers,” Dr. Davanloo adds.

Use music to help soothe emotions.
Studies have shown that Alzheimer’s patients who listen to the music they like or liked in their past are often soothed experience less depression and agitation. “Music can also help patients express themselves physically which can reduce frustration.”

Don’t shoulder the burden alone.
Many caregivers try to care for their loved ones on top of maintaining all their other daily responsibilities. No wonder exhaustion, frustration, depression and anxiety run high. “Caregivers hang in there as long as they can, and then they reach a place where they are exhausted and no longer effective,” adds Dr. Davanloo. “They shouldn’t feel guilty about it. It’s completely normal.”

For some, it may be time to consider a nursing home. Yet, Dr. Davaloo says many Alzheimer’s patients are able to remain at home with their families longer when professional in-home resources are used to help bolster families. In-home care (by the week, day or hour) is a good solution because families then have the assistance of professionals who are experienced in caring for Alzheimer’s patients. It frees up family caregivers so they can rest, tend to other important aspects of their lives, and avoid burn-out.

A variety of in-home care services are available, and some may even be covered by insurance. Consider one or more of the following:

Companion services to supervise patients, provide conversation and facilitate recreational activities our outings.

Personal care services to help with bathing, dressing, toileting, eating exercising and more.

Homemaker services to provide housekeeping, shopping and meal preparation.

Skilled care services to help with wound care, physical therapy, injections and medications and other assistance that requires a licensed health professional.

Take care of yourself.
Learning someone you love has Alzheimer’s disease can spark a flood of emotions that may include anger, fear, anxiety, frustration, grief and depression. It’s especially important that you eat right, get enough sleep and exercise to stay healthy so you can cope with it all. But it’s also important that you have people you can turn to. “Every caregiver needs a strong support system,” says Dr. Davanloo. “Knowing there are people you can rely on when you need them gives you peace of mind. But don’t wait until things seem overwhelming. Put your support system in place early so it’s established before you need it.”

Talk to members of your family to see who is willing and able to help you care for your loved one. Create as schedule so you’ll know who will do what when—and when you will have time off.

Join an Alzheimer’s support group where you can not only get education about caring for an Alzheimer’s patient, but connect with others who understand what you’re going through. A friendly ear and first-hand advice from people who’ve walked a mile in your shoes is absolutely invaluable.

Remember, a nursing home is not always a bad solution.

“There can be a lot of guilt associated with deciding to place a loved one in a nursing home, but a nursing home can be very helpful,” says Dr. Davanloo. “Think of the positives it can offer.”

A nursing home can ensure your family member receives good care round the clock. It can offer a range of activities and appropriate stimulation. Some nursing homes even facilitate day visits so Alzheimer’s patients (depending on the stage of their illness) can go home to spend time with family members or on outings.

While an Alzheimer’s diagnosis will present many challenges from you and your loved one, you’re not alone. There are people who understand what you’re going through and can give you the support you need.

If you have a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer’s or dementia, Dr. Davanloo is here to help. Call 817.460.0257 to schedule a consultation.