Recent headlines are a reminder that Alzheimer's disease is around the corner for many of us.
One in three older adults have the disease, or similar forms of dementia, at the time of their deaths. That's an increase of 68 percent over the last decade. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, calls the numbers, “simply staggering.”
The diagnosis is difficult, often noted only by a growing loss of memory. The mere mention of that symptom sends many of us into a tizzy – worrying about all the times we were just a little forgetful.
Currently, dementia can't be reversed. The brain quietly digresses likely for 10 to 20 years before we recognize that forgetting to turn off the stove might mean a mental health issue.
We try lots of drugs – antidepressants for the sad days, antipsychotics for the confused days. The best break-through was in the late 1990s with cholinesterase inhibitors like donepezil. But even those just slow the progression, if that. So what's left?
A study review combines research from 23 previous studies that looked at the use of caregivers and no medication. And the findings offer hope.
Combining the research brought together 2,379 patient-caregiver couplets. Of the studies included, most looked at whether caregiver training, education or support made a difference with the patients. The studies all tracked neuropsychiatric symptoms in patients, usually for over a year. They also measured the well-being and stress reactions of the caregivers.
The results applied to people with dementia who were still living in their own homes, with family and community support, retirement centers, etc. While the benefits were sometimes small, they still showed a clear delay in requiring nursing home placement. Family caregivers, who had support themselves, reduced the neuropsychiatric symptoms of people with dementia. Caregivers were also able better tolerate the symptoms of their loved ones.
Here are some of the caregiver training topics:
• Cognitive stimulation techniques – interactive games in a social environment that keep the mind active.
• Reality orientation techniques – providing reminders of current events, the date, the weather, holidays.
• Fantasy validation – supporting rather than criticizing harmless delusions or hallucinations.
• Understanding of the progressive nature of dementia.
• Tolerance and coping mechanisms when caring for people with dementia.
Family caregivers don't come with drug-like side effects and should be the first line of care whenever possible.
Interested in learning more? The Midlands Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association offers caregiver education programs once a month, often at no charge. So for those of us privileged to care for someone with Alzheimer's disease, let's be sure we are educated and trained.