Alzheimer’s and Dementia: What to Do When It Happens to Your Loved One

Adult-Children-with-Elderly-ParentWhile it’s hugely prevalent, with one in three seniors ultimately dying with the disease, most people don’t know much about Alzheimer’s and dementia. We’ve already learned from Dr. Therese Meyer-Cox, a neuropsychologist with Memorial Medical Center’s Neurosciences department, about what dementia and Alzheimer’s are. In this installment of our two-part series, she shares the most important information families need to know in order to cope.

My parent has been diagnosed with dementia. What can I expect?
While different people might experience different situations, often the patient loses the ability to live independently, can no longer drive and becomes much more dependent on loved ones. Those with the disease might not understand their new deficits and can become combative because they don’t understand what’s going on. They might not remember why they can’t do what they want to do, which can be understandably frustrating.

After diagnosis, make sure there’s nothing that can be reversible or other factors that can worsen things, such as lack or sleep or medication interaction. Accurate diagnosis and eliminating these complicating factors is hugely important.

Also, if you have a family member you’re concerned about, it’s important to get them evaluated and be sure it’s really Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.

“Sometimes it’s a condition that looks like Alzheimer’s but isn’t, which means it can be treated and improved,” Dr. Meyer-Cox said.

Dr. Meyer-Cox recommends the book 36-Hour Day to many families of patients who’ve been diagnosed with dementia, as well as local resources.

“There are adult daycare centers with respite care so someone can come stay with the person while the family member runs errands or sees a movie or whatever they may need,” she said. “You don’t have to go it alone—there’s information and help out there. You don’t have to figure this out by yourself.”

What should I do or say to keep my parent happy while dealing with this disease?
People with dementia or Alzheimer’s do best in highly familiar environments.

“People with Alzheimer’s will go to nursing homes because family can’t take care of them but that’s an unfamiliar environment that can be upsetting,” Dr. Meyer-Cox said. “They do best where they’ve been for decades: a highly familiar environment.”

Another big tip: Don’t try to get the person to remember something, like asking if he or she took medicine or vitamins for the day.

“To argue with them is pointless because they don’t remember and they won’t,” Dr. Meyer-Cox said. “Just redirect and don’t argue. Move on. Do what you need to do to keep them safe, but don’t correct them all the time.”

My parent with dementia is frightened of another family member. What should we do?
Try to provide as much reassurance as possible. In some cases, you can’t try to convince them this person is harmless. Maybe remove the other person for a week or so until that association is forgotten, then retry. If it becomes more consistent, try keeping that person at a distance. It’s hard, but there’s not much you can do. But hopefully, with time, that association will be forgotten.

Is it OK to talk about the past?
If they can’t access short-term memories, leave those alone, but a lot of people love to reminisce about long ago.

“It’s hard to push them on day-to-day things— that’s frustrating— but those long-ago memories can be accessible,” Dr. Meyer-Cox said.

Read more about Alzheimer’s and dementia.