Identifying and caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disease and the most common form of dementia. Sadly, worldwide, 55 million people are living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Dementia is not a specific disease; it is an overall term that describes a group of symptoms. If you have ever loved or cared for someone who suffers from such a disease, you’ll understand firsthand how emotionally heart wrenching and devastating it can be. As most would say, it’s hard to understand (unfathomable even) how you can lose someone who is literally standing right in front of you.

Over the past years, there has been a notable transformation in the nation’s demographics, leading to a substantial increase in the number of individuals impacted by Alzheimer’s disease. The surge aligns with the approaching “silver tsunami” as the baby boomer generation enters their senior years. Many boomers are drawn to the attractiveness of aging in place in 55 and older senior living community. Notably, age remains the primary risk factor for Alzheimer’s, but the demographic shift emphasizes the urgent necessity to tackle the challenges linked to Alzheimer’s and other dementia types while also preparing to meet the escalating demand for specialized care and supportive services. Choosing a community, like Dallas Retirement Village, that offers a full continuum of care – independent living, assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing and rehabilitation allows aging adults to feel reassured they’ll be cared for no matter where their life’s journey takes them.

The 10 Early Signs and Symptoms to Help Identify Alzheimer’s

First, to understand Alzheimer’s we need to be able to identify it. That can be difficult when growing older naturally comes with its own challenges. How does one identify age-related memory decline from Alzheimer’s – a debilitating disease? The Alzheimer’s Association identifies 10 early signs and symptoms to help us distinguish the differences:

1. Memory Loss that Disrupts Daily Life

One of the most common signs of Alzheimer’s disease, especially in the early stage, is forgetting recently learned information. Others include forgetting important dates or events, asking the same questions over and over, and increasingly needing to rely on memory aids (e.g., reminder notes or electronic devices) or family members for things they used to handle on their own. A typical age-related change would be occasionally forgetting names or appointments but remembering them later.

2. Challenges in planning or solving problems

Some people living with changes in their memory due to Alzheimer’s or other dementia may experience changes in their ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers such as correctly writing out a check. They may have trouble following a familiar recipe or keeping track of monthly bills. You may notice difficulty concentrating and it take longer to accomplish tasks. Typical aging would be making occasional errors when managing finances or household bills.

3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks

People living with memory changes from Alzheimer’s or other dementia often find it hard to complete daily tasks. Sometimes they may have trouble driving to a familiar location, organizing a grocery list, or remembering the rules of a favorite game. Occasionally needing help to use microwave settings or to record a TV show would be representative of age-related changes.

4. Confusion with time or place

Alzheimer’s or other dementia persons can lose track of dates, seasons, and the passage of time such as difficulty understanding something if it is not happening in the present time. Occasionally, they may forget where they are or how they got there, whereas getting confused about the day of the week but figuring it out later would be normal aging.

5. Trouble understanding visual images

Some people living with Alzheimer’s or other dementia could experience vision changes which may lead to difficulty with balance or trouble reading. They may also have problems judging distance and determining color or contrast, causing issues with driving. Developing cataracts would be an example of typical age-related change, not Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

6. New difficulty with words in the form of speaking or writing

Those who have Alzheimer’s or other dementia may have trouble following or joining a conversation. They may stop in the middle of a conversation and be unable to continue conversation, or they may repeat themselves. They may struggle with vocabulary, have trouble naming a familiar object or use the wrong name (e.g., calling a “watch” a “hand-clock”), whereas growing older we can all experience times where we have trouble simply finding the right word.

7. Misplacing items and inability to retrace steps

Persons with Alzheimer’s or other dementia may put things in unusual places. They may lose things and be unable to retrace their steps to find them again. Often those suffering from these types of memory loss, secure valuables (jewelry) or commonly used items (toothbrushes or remote controls) in extraordinary places and stumbling onto them later, wondering how they got there. They may accuse others of stealing, especially as the disease progresses. Misplacing things from time to time and having the ability to retrace one’s steps to find them would be a common age-related example.

8. Change in (or poor) judgment and decision making

Individuals living with Alzheimer’s or other dementia may experience changes in judgment or decision-making. For example, they may use poor judgment when dealing with money or pay less attention to grooming or keeping themselves clean. Making a bad decision or mistake once in a while, like neglecting to change the oil in the car would not be reflective of having Alzheimer’s.

9. Withdrawal from work or social activities

A person living with Alzheimer’s or other dementia may experience changes in their ability to hold or follow a conversation. As a result, they may withdraw from hobbies, social activities, or other engagements. No longer attending card groups, book clubs, coffee groups or family gatherings and celebrations could be indicators of such struggles. Occasional feelings of uninterest in family or social obligations can be understandable as one ages.

10. Changes in mood and personality

Those with Alzheimer’s or other dementia may experience mood and personality changes. They can become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful, or anxious. They may be easily upset at home, with friends or when out of their comfort zone. These behaviors should not be confused with developing very specific ways of doing things and becoming irritable when a routine is disrupted. Having and relying on a consistent and reliable routine is common, especially with age.

There is no single diagnostic test that can determine if a person has Alzheimer’s disease. Physicians use a variety of approaches and tools to help make a diagnosis and may use medical history, mental status tests, physical and neurological exams, biofluid (CSF and blood) tests and brain imaging to diagnose Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Michael Rosenbloom, director of clinical trials at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of Washington, has been studying Alzheimer’s for more than 15 years. “Trying to understand that better then eventually develop better treatments and interventions, that was the ultimate goal of mine and what drove me into that sub-specialty field,” Rosenbloom said. With early detection, one can explore treatments that may provide some relief of symptoms and help you maintain a level of independence longer, as well as increase your chances of participating in clinical drug trials that help advance research.

For decades, there have been treatments to optimize brain function, but nothing to slow the disease – until now! After an 18-month clinical trial and later FDA approval, researchers found the drug Lecanemab (Leqembi) slowed cognitive and functional decline by 27%. The drug is an antibody IV infusion therapy that targets and removes beta-amyloid from the brain. Lecanemab isn’t curative and comes with a hefty price tag at a cost of about $26,500 per year. Rosenbloom said Medicare will cover 80% of the cost for those 65 and older – it’s a start!

You can help fund important research like this by donating to the Alzheimer’s Association. This year Dallas Retirement Village joined the Salem, Oregon Walk to End Alzheimer’s in September by sponsoring the pet area. There, staff and residents made sure furry friends had plenty of fresh water, offered “pet selfies” and handed out purple tie-dyed pet bandanas and resident’s homemade “dog pops” crafted out of Greek yogurt, honey, bananas, and peanut butter with a dog biscuit center.

Dallas Retirement Village Staff initially set a team fundraising goal of $2,000 and began their fundraising efforts in July, but quickly met their goal when local business partners kindly donated business swag and gift cards for the annual Dallas Retirement Village Country Fair. So, why not double it? Just after the walk on September 16th, Dallas Retirement Village surpassed the fundraising goal of $4,000. Aside from the puppy slobbers, comradery, diversity, tears, and laughter – the best part of the day just might have been when 90-year-old Dallas Retirement resident MaryAnn made the nearly 2-mile walk…just to support the cause. Her milestone so appropriately captured in the professional photos of the walk – all our hearts were full that day.

Heartfelt Connections

Outside the “fun & games”, Dallas Retirement Village takes to heart the aging of seniors, utilizing Heartfelt Connections, a nationally recognized memory care program. The program’s name came about from a comment by actress Diane Keaton whose mother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Her son had asked why they still visited his grandmother since she could not remember their visits. He specifically asked, “What is a memory?” Diane’s poignant response was “It’s a picture you take with your heart.” And Heartfelt Connections was born.

The purpose of the program is to better serve those residents living with dementia who reside in senior living communities across the United States. This program aligns directly with the Life Care Services vision to “Create opportunities for purposeful living filled with rich experiences.” Heartfelt Connections also supports the goal of creating the best possible experience for residents living at Dallas Retirement Village with dementia, as well as their families. Heartfelt Connections is distinguished by eight unique aspects. Not all eight features apply to every family and their unique story, but the staff at Dallas Retirement Village strive to achieve each of them.

1. Person-Centered Care is a core concept of Heartfelt Connections, where we focus on seeing the whole person as a unique individual. We recognize that individuals have unique values, personal history, and personality. Person-Centered Care is the most essential piece of Heartfelt Connections and promotes respect, engagement, independence and above all, quality of life.

2. Remaining Abilities Approach is understanding that what remains is far more important than what is lost. Incorporating this mindset emphasizes the fact that every individual living with dementia is unique and their remaining abilities should be discovered, encouraged, celebrated, and honored. This approach allows us to simplify the resident’s world, create failure-free experiences and achieve well-being at every stage of the disease.

3. The 24-Hour Brain focuses on a commonsense methodology where activities change throughout the day due to a tiring brain to maximize resident’s abilities. Dallas Retirement Village believes the right activity at the right time equals happy, independent, engaged, and successful residents. It’s not what we do, but when we do it.

4. Sense of Balance is balancing the three components of active daily living which are part of an individual’s day. Failing to incorporate a balanced combination of these activities can result in frustration and agitation for individuals with dementia, underscoring the significance of a well-rounded routine.

5. Purposeful Environment focuses on enabling individuals to achieve small victories and compensate for disabilities while emphasizing their remaining abilities. Such an environment ensures safety and security and creates a welcoming atmosphere for family and friends to engage in the care process. The environment should work for, not against, the individual with dementia. Cueing, Life Stations, and Points of Interest are part of our Purposeful Environment approach.

  • Cueing is the use of signage, recognizable items, light, color, and contrast to help the individual living with dementia navigate their environment.
  • Life Stations are interactive “stations” within the community that allow residents to reminisce on a hobby, interest, or past career. Life Stations are visual reminders of past life events that reduce frustration and focus on familiar activities.
  • Points of Interest are elements in the environment that spark interest and create opportunities for engagement or redirection.

6. Silent Language supports the understanding that as dementia progresses, the ability to verbally communicate decreases, leading to a reliance on nonverbal communication and/or behavioral expressions to communicate unmet needs. This includes gestures, body positioning, facial expressions, and volume of voice. These nonverbal cues become crucial in understanding and meeting the unmet needs of individuals with dementia. The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.

7. Dignified Dining Experience is understanding it’s more than a meal. Individuals living with dementia may have changes in their dining experience such as appetite changes, disinterest in food, ability to use utensils, and other changes due to health and aging. Dining for memory care residents can provide social opportunities while maintaining the highest level of function and dignity. We incorporate multiple techniques, such as colored flatware and warm towelettes with essential oils to stimulate appetite, as well as finger foods and food-on-the-go to offer dementia-friendly meals. We know eating is more than “just a meal” for residents and we aim to truly make it a dining experience that highlights their remaining abilities.

8. Failure Free Experiences incorporate each of the differentiating features and allow us to celebrate all resident moments of joy as successes by changing how we see an individual living with dementia. By adapting to the individual’s changing needs, we can achieve the highest quality of life possible for each resident in our community living with dementia.

In conclusion, Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease impacting a rising number of people as they begin to age. While the disease is devastating for family and loved ones, there are many great resources available to making caring for a person with Alzheimer’s easier through understanding. In this blog we talked about the 10 early signs and symptoms that may be present to help identify Alzheimer’s, hope for recent and continued treatment discoveries, Dallas Retirement Village’s relationship with the Alzheimer’s Association, and caring for seniors with Alzheimer’s and other dementias through Heartfelt Connections. Together, we can learn how to identify and better care for those with this disease while continuing to assist the Alzheimer’s Association so that one day we can find a cure.

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