Recently we commemorated the nineteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. If you ask a loved one or coworker what they were doing when they heard an airplane had struck the World Trade Center, it is likely they will recall it vividly. If they are of sufficient age, they may also share their recollections of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassinations, the Space Shuttle Challenger’s breaking, and the Berlin Wall’s falling.
Some people describe memory as a precious gift. Others focus on training the brain to improve memory skills. As students, all of us envied the classmate with the eidetic or photographic memory who aced tests with little study.
Memory is inarguably necessary to conduct the basics of living. It may not be essential to recall that in August 1912 Harry Brearley invented stainless steel in Sheffield, England, but it is imperative to remember where you live, to turn off the stove, and to pay the electric bill. The Mayo Clinic describes dementia, which is “damage to or loss of nerve cells and their connections in the brain,” not as a specific disease itself, but as “a group of symptoms affecting memory, thinking and social abilities severely enough to interfere with your daily life.”
The Dementia Network reports these startling numbers:
- Every three seconds, someone somewhere in the world develops dementia.
- By 2050, 152 million people worldwide will be living with dementia, 68 percent of whom will be in poor or low-income countries.
Several different diseases may cause dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the most common. Other dementia-related terms you may have heard are Lewy body, vascular, and mixed. Like Alzheimer’s, they are all progressive and irreversible, although medications may temporarily improve symptoms or slow the rate of decline.
September is World Alzheimer’s Month, and World Alzheimer’s Day is 21 September. In 2012, these recognitions were established by Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI), an umbrella organization of over one hundred Alzheimer’s associations worldwide, to raise awareness of dementia and its stigma.
On its website, the Alzheimer’s Association relates that German physician Alois Alzheimer gave the disease its name in 1906. Relatively recent revelations of prominent people burdened with and succumbing to Alzheimer’s have skyrocketed awareness of this progressive neurodegenerative condition: President Ronald Reagan, country singer Glenn Campbell, fifties crooner Perry Como, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, 1940s film star Rita Hayworth, actor-detective Peter Falk (“Colombo”), Mother of the Freedom Movement Rosa Parks, writer/editor E.B. White.
In 2013, the Pew Report described the Sandwich Generation, middle-aged Americans struggling with financial responsibilities presented by children and aging parents. Inquire of any of these sandwiched folks, however, and you will likely hear that meeting these multigenerational demands affects a lot more than one’s wallet.
Take, for instance, 56-year-old Nan, who will tell you about babysitting her three-year-old granddaughter on Tuesdays and Thursdays so her adult children can work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nan’s from a large family, and on Wednesdays it is her turn to care for her 84-year-old father, who recently lost his wife of sixty years. Tuesdays and Thursdays are tiring because her granddaughter, currently in the “princess” stage, insists on changing her outfit fifteen times a day. Wednesdays are exhausting because her Alzheimer’s-afflicted dad refuses to shed any clothes, no matter how many days worn, no matter the weather – nor does he wish to take a shower.
Nan relates that she is making progress with Princess, but reasoning with Dad is impossible. She adds that incessant and repetitive questions from an elder are not nearly as endearing as the inquisitiveness of a toddler. Wednesdays are Tensedays, when frustration is the norm.
It is also heartbreaking, Nan explains, that the person who was once your go-to for guidance cannot make the simplest decision or perform the most basic activity without your direction or intervention. Still, she reports triumphantly, “He hasn’t forgotten that I’m his daughter.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, the brain changes Alzheimer’s inflicts manifest in trouble with
- thinking and reasoning;
- making judgments and decisions;
- planning and performing familiar tasks.
These changes can also alter personality and behavior and cause
- social withdrawal;
- mood swings;
- distrust of others;
- irritability and aggressiveness;
- changes in sleep habits;
- loss of inhibitions;
- delusions, such as believing something has been stolen.
In addition to conducting research on aging processes, diseases, and problems and needs of the aged, the National Institute on Aging (NIA), under the National Institute of Health, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, has an extensive information program to communicate about research and health with older people and their family members, health professionals, and policymakers. Access its website at National Institute on Aging for resources that aid people who care for family members and friends affected by Alzheimer’s.
Its articles provide tips on communication skills and coping with agitation and aggression, hallucinations and delusions, sundowning, rummaging and hiding behavior, sleep problems, and other dementia-related issues. Suggestions include these:
- Keep things simple. Ask or say one thing at a time.
- Use humor when you can.
- Don’t argue or try to reason.
- Reduce noise, clutter, or the number of people in a room.
- Be patient with angry outbursts. Remember, it’s the illness “talking.”
- Offer simple, step-by-step instructions.
- Do not serve alcoholic drinks, as they may add to confusion and anxiety.
- Plan activities that use more energy early in the day.
- Turn off the television when violent or upsetting programs are on, as someone with Alzheimer’s may think these events are happening in the room.
- Try music, singing, or dancing as distractions.
- Remove valuable items that could be misplaced or hidden, like important papers, checkbooks, charge cards, jewelry, cell phones, and keys.
NIA emphasizes that asking for support with caregiving demonstrates strength. It means you are aware of your limitations and know when to seek help.
While by no means a trouble-free solution, at-home caregiving offers a loved one with Alzheimer’s the comfort, security, and stability of familiar faces and surroundings. Furthermore, it inhibits the isolation and resulting anxiety and depression that assisted living and nursing home residents may experience due to COVID visitor restrictions.
If you’ve determined you need assistance in dealing with the challenges Alzheimer’s presents, please phone Panhandle Home Health. We’re happy to talk with you about how we can help!