Psychiatrist Blog

Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease in a Loved One and How to Care

woman with alzheimers

The Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease in a Loved One and How to Care For Them

Alzheimer’s disease is a terrible disorder which causes individuals to regress into shells of their formal selves. The mild short-term memory impairment in the beginning stages is saddening and problematic for the person themselves, but in the later stages the moderate to severe impairment causes stress and strain for their caregivers. The stress can really start to affect the mental health of those involved, so being aware of what you are dealing with and how to handle these situations will help you through the process. For sake of simplicity, we will refer to a person who has Alzheimer’s as John for the remainder of the blog.

The early stages the memory impairment may present in the form of repeat questions. John may ask you how work was when you return home. You respond ‘good!’, and then run back to the car to grab something you forgot. You then return inside and John asks you again, how was work? The best way to handle these repeat questions is to simply answer them. Questioning why he asked you the same question twice, or if he remembers asking you the same question a couple minutes ago will not accomplish anything. It may even cause John to feel uncomfortable or sad being made aware that his memory is actively failing. Be patient and understanding. As the disease progresses John may start asking repeat questions on a more consistent basis. This often leads to frustration as the caregiver gets tired of answering the same question over and over again. Remind yourself that John is purely not capable of remembering certain things due to the underlying disease process, and that he is not doing any of this intentionally. 

Do not be surprised when John forgets where things are or how to do certain things. He may play golf every Saturday morning, but one morning he will return home emotionally distressed because he could not remember how to get to the golf course. Providing emotional care and support for John during these times is of upmost importance as he really starts to see how the disease is affecting him. Later down the road there may be more significant changes. It may start by consistently placing the tub of ice cream in the refrigerator instead of the freezer, and worsen to the point that John pours his coffee into a soup bowl instead of a mug. Do not scold John. Do not ask why he put the ice cream in the fridge. Do not question why he put coffee in a soup bowl. Just help him. Move the ice cream into the freezer. Get him some coffee in a mug and take the bowl. John does not realize what he is doing is wrong, he is just trying to get through the day as best he can.

When the disease enters the severe stage John’s memory is really going to fail. If you are his wife, he may forget that you are his wife. He may simply see you as his friend who he lives with. He no longer remembers your birthday, your anniversary, your children, or anything that would be seemingly unforgettable. This can be the most difficult stage for family members to cope with. He is no longer the man that you all once knew, but rather a presence who exists amongst you all. It is at this time you must realize the only thing John is aware of is the present. He cannot remember what he had for breakfast, or what movie he watched earlier. All he is aware of is what is going on at that very moment. Make sure he is comfortable, ask if he needs a blanket, does he need something to eat, something to drink, or something else that may provide him comfort and relief at that time.

You may be wondering how I came up with such specific examples such as pouring coffee into a soup bowl. All the examples in this blog were taken from personal experiences with my grandfather, John Clark, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for over 10 years. The advice provided is from direct reflection on how I, my family members, and my grandmother should have handled these situations with John. We were not perfect, and if you have someone in your life with Alzheimer’s, you will not be perfect either, but that is ok. What you can do is be aware of what is going on and do your best to care for them with all your heart. Even if they do not remember the kind things you do for them, they will be aware of it in the moment, and that is all that matters.

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