Tips for Caregivers of Those With Alzheimer's

Your parent, spouse, or a loved one has started forgetting the short term and is increasingly confused. Details escape them, dancing just out of reach, and they forget where they’ve placed the keys or that they’ve already told you a particular story twice today. Or their confusion is more severe, and they have entirely lost their sense of what is happening around them. Regardless of the severity, caring for your parent with Alzheimer’s Disease is a daily process and one that requires patience and understanding.

Alzheimer’s affects approximately 5.3 million Americans — making it the most common form of dementia — and a 40% increase in diagnoses is predicted in the next decade. While there is no cure, the disease can be managed through both medical intervention and day-to-day adjustments. Here are some tips for those caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s, be it a parent or other loved one.

Educate yourself and watch for early symptoms. If you suspect your loved one is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, it is helpful to know what to look for. Early symptoms can include confusion about place and time, as well as short-term memory loss. They may struggle to remember names or leave the stove on without realizing. Sometimes your loved one is aware of the difficulties they are having but are unwilling to confront the reality; approach the situation with sensitivity. If they do not want to go to the doctor for memory issues, consider getting them to the doctor for another reason, or revisit the conversation every few weeks. Avoid being confrontational, and frame the discussion as stemming from your concern for them. More information about Alzheimer’s can be found at Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.

Determine a diagnosis and discuss medicine. If you suspect that your parent has Alzheimer’s, be sure to have them see a medical professional. This way, other diseases can be ruled out and you can be certain of your parent’s condition. If they receive a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s, they may also be prescribed one or multiple medications to help alleviate their symptoms. Make sure to monitor your loved one to determine if prescribed medications are right for them. Additionally, ensure your loved one knows what medications they are taking and when — if they are confused, they may benefit from a weekly pill box.

Develop your caregiving skills. Involve yourself in your loved one’s daily activities, providing assistance where needed. Be on the lookout for safety issues and double check that they have performed the duties they’re still capable of, such as paying the bills. Approach them with compassion and patience, and try to understand the difficulties they are experiencing as they lose memory and awareness. And don’t forget to take time for yourself as well; avoid becoming exhausted, which will only make life harder for both you and your parent.

Engage in activities. Devise activities that your loved one is both able to do and enjoys doing. Plan games, crafts, and household tasks that are straightforward and harness motor abilities that are necessary in regular daily activities such as brushing their teeth; this way your loved one is practicing these motions. You and your parent or other loved one can take walks, dance, listen to music, or garden together, and these are just the beginning. More activity ideas can be found at AARP. 

Prepare for the future. Make sure to have a long-term plan for your parent or partner as both of you grow older. Their condition may worsen and your ability to provide care may not be sufficient forever. If they are capable, involve your loved one in the decision making regarding their future care. 

Advocate for your loved one. Continue to stay engaged at every step of the way. You are your loved one’s best advocate, so make sure you are informed of their treatment plan and who is responsible for providing care generally. Work with your loved one’s doctor to devise the treatment plan, and discuss all matters with your loved one as much as they are able. Take note of anything that concerns you about your parent or spouse’s behavior, and always ask questions of the medical professionals in charge of their care.

Do you have a parent or other relative with Alzheimer’s? Share your advice in the comments below. 

Dr. Crystal Watkins is the director of The Memory Clinic, part of the Neuropsychiatry Program at Sheppard Pratt, and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her research interests include mood and anxiety disorders in the aging population and the use of brain imaging in the early diagnosis and treatment of dementia.