Many seniors, myself included, have “senior moments.” I will be telling a story or chatting with a friend on the phone and I have trouble recalling the right word. Sometimes, my friend will finish my sentence, and vice versa, but it’s a bit frustrating. As we age, some memory loss is quite normal. I have heard that we have so much knowledge in our mental file cabinet that it takes a little longer to retrieve it, but I doubt that is really the case. It’s a nice thought, though.

There are several forms of brain-related ailments (dementia) and Alzheimer’s disease is the most brutal. So, how can you tell a harmless senior moment from Alzheimer’s? Statistics show that as many as one in eight people 65 and older have this devastating form of dementia. In its first stages, Alzheimer’s may not be obvious, but there are some early warning signs to watch for. In addition to memory loss, Alzheimer’s can cause confusion and basic behavior changes. Getting lost in familiar places, mood swings and lapses in judgment are also common, as is a lapse in basic hygiene. Individuals with the disease may start wearing stained clothes or frequently forget to wash their hair.

Although it is very hard to face the thought that a loved one could have this disease, it’s better to see a doctor sooner, rather than later. The diagnosis might be something else and symptoms could be caused by a highly treatable problem, like a thyroid imbalance. If it is Alzheimer’s, treatments work best when they begin in the earlier stages.

Unfortunately, there is no simple test for Alzheimer’s, so the doctor will rely on you to describe the changes in your loved one. A mental status test, sometimes called a “mini-cog,” can measure mental skills and short-term memory. Neurological exams and brain scans may be used only to rule out other problems, like a stroke or tumor. 

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but there are things you can do to lower your chances of getting this disease. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America says that diet and exercise appear to be important. Studies show people who eat a diet rich in vegetables, fish and nuts, and get plenty of physical activity are the least likely to get Alzheimer’s. 

AARP recently published an article about using mice to research possible cures. The findings told them the mice they used were not genetically complex enough and did not develop the disease in its entirety, so the scientists created genetically modified mice that can replicate some of the disease’s main factors. According to AARP, these scientists have created a set of 28 genetically altered mice who are reacting in a similar way to humans with the disease. With more studies, they are optimistic that this will lead to new therapies.

If someone you love has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, there are a few things you should be aware of if you are their caregiver. First and foremost is to make sure you have plenty of support, whether it is with a group or other family members. Your good health and strength are imperative for you to be able to help the person you are caring for. Alzheimer’s has no clock. It is a 24-hour job. Get some help. There are two local daycare centers you can take someone to for a wonderful day of companionship and activities while you take a break and relax for a few hours. The Bedford Center in Antioch and St. Anne Village Respite Care in Byron are safe and very affordable options.

While caring for someone with dementia of any kind, remember to have patience with the patient. Their frustration increases when yours does. Breathe. Never talk down to the person or treat them like an infant. A high-pitched, baby-talk sort of voice — sometimes called ‘elderspeak’ — is not fitting for communicating with adults. 

Regardless of how much the person with dementia can or cannot understand, treat him or her with honor and use a respectful tone of voice. Always try to use their name instead of “dear” or “honey,” even if it is something you have used before to show endearment.

Many patients appreciate a gentle touch, but it’s important to know how they feel about physical contact. It can be an effective way to communicate that you care, but tread softly and always be mindful of their reactions. Also, if the person is seated, bend down to their level, smile and make eye contact. Avoid too many questions. Don’t use slang. Only speak loud enough for the person to properly hear you.

 And remember that dementia of any kind takes its toll on both the patient and the caregiver. 

I pray that, someday, medical advancements will make it so no one has to write articles like this anymore.

Marla Luckhardt is a Brentwood resident who works with senior care and advocacy groups. Email her at marla2054@aol.com.

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