According to the Alzheimer’s Association, over 6 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is expected to rise to close to 13 million by 2050. As a disease that kills more people than prostate and breast cancer combined, proper care for those with the condition is critical. If you have a loved one who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, here’s a guide to what you need to know.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is one type of dementia—the most common type—that can affect memory, behavior, and thinking. Although many people think that memory problems are a normal part of aging, Alzheimer’s disease isn’t a normal part of growing older, although increasing age is a risk factor. While most people with the disease are over the age of 65, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease does hit people under age 65 at times.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that grows worse over time. In the earliest stages, the memory loss is mild, but it can progress to the point where seniors lose their ability to respond to the environment and even carry on a conversation. It’s also a leading cause of death within the United States, and on average, individuals with the disease live four to eight years after their diagnosis.
Currently, there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are multiple treatments for the symptoms, and scientists continue to research the disease in search of a cure. Available treatments won’t stop the progression of the disease, but they can slow the worsening of the symptoms temporarily, improving the overall quality of life.
What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?
Dementia is a more general term used to describe the decline of mental abilities like reasoning or memory that’s severe enough to interfere with an individual’s daily life. Alzheimer’s is a specific brain disease and is a type of dementia that’s responsible for between 60-80% of dementia cases.
Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s
As loved one's age, it’s easy to gloss over the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s with the idea that they’re just growing older. Everyone forgets things here and there, after all. The thought of someone close to you having Alzheimer’s is a scary thought, but it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, so you can have them see a physician if needed. While only a doctor can make a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, the following are signs and symptoms that have been associated with this disease.
Early Signs of Mild Alzheimer’s Disease
The early signs of mild Alzheimer’s usually come on gradually and it may seem like the individual is simply forgetful due to growing older. Many individuals seem mostly alert, just a bit confused about what’s going on around them. Common early signs of mild Alzheimer’s may include:
- Taking more time to complete normal tasks
- Getting lost or wandering
- Memory loss
- Repeating questions or telling the same story multiple times
- Misplacing things or losing them
- Poor judgment resulting in bad decision making
- Increase in anxiety
- Changes to personality or moodiness
- Difficulty paying bills and handling money
These are symptoms that often lead to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. If you notice these symptoms in a loved one, it’s important to have them evaluated professionally, so they can be treated to slow the disease’s progression.
Symptoms of Moderate Alzheimer’s Disease
At this point, seniors with Alzheimer’s require more supervision and care. Common symptoms of moderate Alzheimer’s disease include:
- No longer able to learn new things
- Problems organizing thoughts
- Increase in confusion and memory loss
- Difficulty coping with new experiences or situations
- Problems recognizing friends or family members
- Difficult with reading, writing, numbers, and speaking
- Impulsive behavior like using vulgar language or undressing publicly
- Shorter attention span
- Problems carrying out tasks with multiple steps
- Repeating statements
- Repetitive movements
- Sudden outbursts of anger
- Agitation, wandering, tearfulness, anxiety, and restlessness, particularly in the late afternoon or evening hours
Common Signs of Severe Alzheimer’s
Once individuals have severe Alzheimer’s, they become completely dependent on others for care and usually can’t communicate. Symptoms of severe Alzheimer’s may include:
- Increase in time spent sleeping
- Weight loss
- Grunting, groaning, or moaning
- Loss of bladder and bowel control
- Inability to communicate
- Problems swallowing
- Skin infections
Stages of Alzheimer’s
Since Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease, it means that the symptoms grow worse as time goes on. Symptoms grow worse at every stage of the disease. The stages of Alzheimer’s include:
- Stage 1: At this point, there are usually no symptoms. However, based upon family history there may be an early diagnosis of the disease.
- Stage 2: This is the point when you first start seeing the mild, early symptoms of Alzheimer’s like forgetfulness.
- Stage 3: Very mild mental and physical impairments appear at this stage. This may include reduced concentration and memory. Usually, it’s only someone close to the individual who notices these signs at this point.
- Stage 4: Although Alzheimer’s disease is still considered mild at this point, this is the stage when many people receive their diagnosis. Difficulty performing everyday tasks and memory loss have become evident.
- Stage 5: As moderate symptoms set in, seniors with Alzheimer’s begin needing more help from caregivers or loved ones.
- Stage 6: Symptoms become worse, and individuals with Alzheimer’s often need help with the most basic tasks like dressing for the day or eating a meal.
- Stage 7: The final stage of Alzheimer’s disease, loved ones may lose their facial expressions, be unable to speak, and may spend most of their time sleeping.
Care Options for Seniors with Alzheimer’s
When a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease requires care, there’s no one-size-fits-all option that works for every situation. The care your loved one requires depends on the stage of the disease, your family situation, and their unique health needs. Here’s a closer look at some of the available options and the benefits they offer.
Adult Day Centers
An adult day center provides individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia a chance to interact with other people, enjoying activities and social time in a safe environment. The exact services vary from center to center, but common types of services available at adult day centers generally include personal care, activities, counseling, health services, therapy, behavior management, and nutrition.
Some of the benefits of selecting an adult day center include:
- Provides Caregivers with a Break: Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s is challenging, and an adult day center allows you to continue providing their care while still ensuring you get a break. This gives you time to run errands, handle other tasks, or simply rest.
- Helpful for Loved Ones Who Work: For loved ones who need to balance their caregiving duties with a full-time job, a day center often works well. Although hours of operation vary from center to center, many are open 8-10 hours each day. Some may even provide evening or weekend hours, along with meals and transportation.
- Social Activities for Individuals with Alzheimer’s: Social activities are essential for individuals who have dementia, and adult day centers ensure they get to socialize with others while engaging in stimulating activities.
In-home care brings services often provided in care facilities or hospitals to a loved one’s home. It gives seniors with Alzheimer’s a chance to remain in their own homes and gives caregivers some assistance as well.
Some of the available in-home services include:
- Personal Care Services: Assistance with toileting, exercising, eating, bathing, dressing, and other types of personal care.
- Skilled Care: Assistance with physical therapy, injections, wound care, or additional medical needs.
- Companion Services: Assistance with recreational activities and supervision, as well as socializing and visiting.
- Housekeeping services: Assistance with cleaning, shopping, or preparing meals.
When loved ones with Alzheimer’s require more care than you can offer at home, a residential care facility often makes an excellent option. Different facilities offer varying levels of care, and the one you choose will depend upon your loved one's needs. Types of residential care include:
- Retirement Housing: This option works best for individuals who have early-stage Alzheimer’s who still can care for themselves since this type of housing generally only offers limited supervision. Transportation, social activities, and additional services may be provided.
- Assisted Living Care: Assisted living is an excellent choice for those who may not be able to live on their own, yet skilled nursing facilities are still unneeded. These facilities offer a combination of health care, supportive services, housing, social activities, and meals. Keep in mind, not all assisted living homes provide services designed for individuals who have dementia.
- Skilled Nursing Facilities: Skilled nursing facilities offer long-term, around-the-clock medical care. Services provided include recreation, medical care, nutrition, care planning, and more. These facilities are licensed by states and the federal government regulates them.
- Memory Care Units: Memory care units are designed to meet the unique needs of individuals who have Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. They come in different forms and often exist within other forms of residential care. Memory care units generally offer unique designs and security measures, and they include specific activities and specialized care to meet both the mental and physical needs of seniors with Alzheimer’s.
- Continuing Care Retirement Communities: A continuing care retirement community (CCRC) offers all these levels of care, from independent living to skilled nursing based upon the senior’s needs. The resident can stay in the community, moving through various levels of care as needed. Payment for a CCRC may involve monthly fees or an initial entry fee along with subsequent monthly fees for care.
Family members caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s need a break from time to time. Respite care ensures that caregivers can take a temporary rest from their caregiving duties while ensuring the individual with Alzheimer’s gets the care they require in a safe place. Respite services can give a caregiver the chance to recharge.
Some of the benefits of respite care for caregivers and individuals with Alzheimer’s include:
- Time for caregivers to relax
- A chance to spend some time with family or friends
- A break to take care of important errands like visiting the doctor, shopping, or exercising
- Peace of mind knowing that a loved one is getting the care they need while you have a break
- Time for a loved one with Alzheimer’s to enjoy activities with others
- Social activities that match the individual’s unique needs and abilities
- Supportive, safe environment
Available options for respite care include:
- In-home companion services that provide supervised activities and companionship
- Skilled care, in-home services to offer aid with medical services like medication assistance
- Home health aide or personal care services to offer help with personal care
- Adult day centers that offer respite care with staff-planned activities, meals, and transportation
- Residential facilities that offer overnight stays for one day or up to a few weeks for more extended respite breaks
Hospice care provides dignity and comfort for loved ones who are reaching the end of their life. It provides support services and care that can benefit individuals who are in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Beyond caring for loved ones who are terminally ill, usually within the last six months of life, it offers support to family members, as well.
A few examples of the care offered by hospice care teams include:
- Respite care that gives relief to caregivers
- Counseling on the end-of-life and the emotional and spiritual impacts
- Medical care to reduce pain and other symptoms
- Grief support to family members
How to Choose the Right Care for Your Loved One
Knowing that your loved one is receiving the care they need is important, and you want to know that they are in good hands. Quality care involves making sure their basic needs are met in a safe way, while also ensuring their caregivers offer treatment to the whole person. Leaving a loved one with Alzheimer’s in the care of someone else can feel overwhelming, but by following a few steps, you can find the right care to meet their needs while giving you peace of mind.
Assess Your Loved One’s Care Needs
Before you can choose the right care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, it’s important to assess their care needs. The amount of care they’ll need is based upon various factors, such as how well they can independently use the restroom, dress, eat, walk, or bathe. In the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, individuals are often able to do many things on their own, but as the disease progresses, they’ll require more supervision.
A few questions to ask yourself include:
- Does my loved one with Alzheimer’s need any special care?
- Do they need assistance with medicines?
- Is my loved one safe?
- What kind of supervision do they need?
- Do they just need help with personal care or 24-hour supervision?
- Would it benefit my loved one to spend more time with people?
- Is my loved one engaging in meaningful activities each day?
- Do they require help with grooming, dressing, bathing, or toileting?
- Can my loved one cook and eat without assistance?
- Is caring for my loved one becoming too difficult?
- Can I physically handle providing the care my loved one needs?
Begin Contacting Providers
After you know what type of care your loved one needs, you’re ready to begin contacting providers. What’s the best way to find local providers? Here are a few good places to begin your search:
- Ask your loved one’s physician
- Talk to your local Alzheimer’s Association
- Ask other caregivers within your community
- Talk to individuals who have used local providers
- Check with your Area Agency on Aging or a local senior center
When you have some options, begin calling different providers. Talk to them about your situation and the type of care you’re looking for. Find out about their qualifications, amenities and services available, hours of availability, and cost. The more information you collect early, the easier it will be to reduce your list of potential providers to the ones that best fit your loved one’s needs.
Screening Alzheimer’s Care Providers
Once you’ve narrowed down your options to just a few, then you need to screen the Alzheimer’s care providers. Be sure to ask plenty of questions. A few basics to check into as you’re screening providers include:
- Experience and Training: Does the staff have specialized training in care for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease?
- Services: Does the provider have all the services and amenities your loved one will need?
- Backups: What happens if the provider takes a vacation, quits, or becomes ill.
- Care Plans: Will the family, loved one, and other healthcare professionals be involved in the care plan?
- References: Does the provider have multiple references? What do those references say about the provider?
- Background Checks: Will the facility, agency, or provider ensure all staff members have passed a background check?
- Visits: If you’re looking into residential care or adult day centers, find out if you can visit the facility. As you look around, consider the overall feeling you get. Are people engaging in activities? Are the staff members helpful? Is it clean and well-organized? If it’s an in-home provider, ask the provider to meet you and your loved one in person. Note how they communicate with you and your loved one with Alzheimer’s disease.
An Alzheimer’s diagnosis for your loved one can be scary and difficult to navigate. But you are not alone—there are many support groups and care options available to help you, your loved one, and your family move forward with the care and support needed to offer the best quality of life for your loved one.
If you’d like to learn more about senior memory loss and the journey for you and your loved one, download our complimentary ebook: Dementia & Memory Care: Understanding the Journey.