Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month: Are there any treatments and how can patients, families cope with the disease?
There is no drug to cure Alzheimer’s yet, but medicines can help slow the worsening of symptoms temporarily
There is currently no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, medical management can improve the quality of life for individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers. Treatments address several different areas, which include helping people maintain mental function, managing behavioral symptoms, and slowing or delaying the symptoms of the disease, such as memory loss, for a limited period. Treating the symptoms of the disease can provide people with comfort, dignity and independence for a longer period and can encourage and assist their caregivers as well, say experts.
“The chief goals of treatment are to maintain quality of life; maximize function in daily activities; enhance cognition, mood, and behavior; foster a safe environment; and promote social engagement, as appropriate,” explains the Alzheimer’s Association.
Are there any medicines?
Several prescription drugs are currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat symptoms in people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But it is important to understand that none of these medications will stop the disease itself from progressing, but can only temporarily slow the worsening of symptoms.
Most medicines work best for people in the early or middle stages of Alzheimer’s. Understanding available options can help both individuals living with the disease and their caregivers to cope with it. For more information, check the Alzheimer’s Association website which details medications for memory, treatments for behavior, and treatment for sleep changes. You can also check the section on alternative treatments compiled by the Association.
Currently, in ongoing clinical trials, scientists are developing and testing several possible interventions, including immunization therapy, drug therapies, cognitive training, and physical activity, among others.
Know what to expect and plan for the future
Get educated: Learning as much as you can about your diagnosis is the first step toward empowering yourself to take control of your life and make decisions that will help you live well with Alzheimer’s for as long as possible. It may help you to come to terms with your diagnosis, reevaluate your priorities, discuss available treatments and medications with your doctor, be an active participant in making long-term care plans, and build a care team that understands your current and future needs and wishes. You can learn ways to help your family and friends adjust to your diagnosis here. Information on programs and support can be accessed here.
Beginning treatment early in the disease process may help preserve daily functioning for some time. After a treatment plan is implemented, patients should return for evaluation regularly. Both cognitive and behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s tend to change as the disease progresses, so regular visits allow adaptation of treatment strategies to current needs. Patients with Alzheimer’s may not be a reliable resource for history-taking, so experts encourage a family member, friend, or caregiver to accompany the patient to all visits.
Look after your health: As an Alzheimer’s patient, you will likely have good days and bad days. Hence, it is important to look after your physical and mental health. Experts recommend eating a healthy, balanced diet and drinking plenty of fluids. You can keep a smartphone or a notebook with you to keep track of important information, such as your address, directions to your home, and emergency contacts, among others. Focus on things you enjoy, allow yourself time to do things, and ask for help if you need it
Get your affairs in order: Having an early diagnosis helps people with Alzheimer’s and their families plan for the future, take care of financial and legal matters, address potential safety issues, develop support networks and learn about living arrangements. An early diagnosis also gives people greater opportunities to participate in clinical trials that are testing possible new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease or in other research studies.
For more details and resources, including information on hospice care, what happens at the time of death and managing grief, you can refer to the website of the National Institute on Aging. You can check care options here. Resources on financial and legal planning can also be accessed here.
What should you keep in mind as a caregiver?
Many people living with Alzheimer’s are currently cared for at home by family members. While most people willingly provide care to their loved ones and friends, caring for a person with the disease at home can be tough and might become overwhelming at times. You can find more information on caregivers and caregiving here and here.
There are different stages of the disease. As it gets worse, people living with Alzheimer’s disease need more intensive care. Eventually, the person may be in bed most or all of the time as the body shuts down and he or she becomes completely dependent on others for care. Experts urge caregivers to keep the following things in mind:
Understand the disease: If you are a caregiver for someone suffering from Alzheimer’s, you may face difficult challenges as you try to understand and cope with changing levels of ability, personality, and behavioral changes in the person you are caring for. An understanding of the disease and the resulting behavior of a person with Alzheimer’s can help lessen these difficulties. It can also assist you in planning ahead. Seek help and ask for advice and learn from others who have had similar experiences.
Create a daily routine: Keep things simple and establish a daily routine so the person knows when certain things will happen. Some tasks, such as bathing or medical appointments, are easier when the person is most alert and refreshed.
Set realistic goals: Caregivers often try to make everything all right and strive for unrealistic goals and end up exhausted and frustrated. Try not to show your frustration or anger. Over time, the patient will become more dependent, hence stay flexible and adapt your routine and expectations as needed. Anticipate that tasks may take longer than they used to and schedule more time for them. You can also allow the person with Alzheimer’s to do as much as possible as long as they can do so. For example, you can ask for help while folding clothes or setting the table.
Reassure them: As the disease progresses, a person may no longer be able to accurately interpret verbal or non-verbal cues, which can cause anxiety and frustration for both you and the patient. You can reassure the person that he or she is safe and you are there to help. Try to be clear and concise in your communications, repeating things as needed using the same words or message. Focus on his or her feelings rather than words. Talk with the person’s doctor about problems like hitting, depression, or hallucinations.
Focus on their safety: This is because memory and judgment of an Alzheimer’s patient will gradually become impaired and he or she may not be able to anticipate or avoid dangerous situations. Create a safe environment at home. It is best to assess each situation individually and gradually increase the person’s level of supervision as needed. The Alzheimer’s Association also offers a nationwide emergency response service that “facilitates the safe return of individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia who wander or have a medical emergency.” Find more details here and here.
Do not neglect your own health: According to experts, caregivers often strive to meet all of the health and personal needs of the person with Alzheimer’s, but they often neglect their own. According to researchers, many caregivers report high levels of stress, which can contribute to illness and nearly 40% suffer from depression. Physicians and other health care professionals can help by looking for signs of caregiver burnout, treating medical problems, and referring them to support services, such as the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 helpline (800.272.3900).
The caregiving information of the Alzheimer’s Association also offers guidance on how to maintain physical and mental health amid caregiving, as well as advice on how to manage their loved one’s daily care, enhance their daily life, and respond to behaviors.