Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is one of the most dreaded medical conditions for the older population. It is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly erodes memory, cognitive and executive skills and functioning abilities. It is profoundly disturbing to the patient and the family.
In 1906, Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German neurologist and psychiatrist, first described the symptoms and the physiological brain tissue deterioration of AD. It was not until the 1980’s that diagnostic criteria for AD were established and congress mandated the National Institute of Health (NIH) as the lead agency for AD research. Today, medications have been added to slow the progression of the disease but no effective treatment or cure has been discovered.
Psychologically, the diagnosis of AD is profoundly devastating for the patient and the family. It often evokes emotions such as: fear, sadness, helplessness, grief, anger as well as deep love. The individual with AD may also be socially ostracized due to public misunderstanding and fears of AD.
For most people with AD, symptoms first appear after age 60. The U.S. Census Bureau Report on Aging anticipates the population growth of 65 year olds and older to reach about 72 million in the next 20 years. As of now, one-in-three families are impacted by AD.
A 2009 National Alliance for Caregiving AARP survey found that 10.9 million family members and friends provide unpaid care to a person with AD. Being a caregiver for a parent/grandparent/sibling/spouse/friend or relative requires not only knowledge about AD, adaptive and creative caregiving skills, but also exceptional physical and emotional resilience.
Being a caregiver to a loved one who is gradually losing competence is not only heartbreaking and taxing but is also a health hazard. Professor Kristine Yaffe found that “one third of family caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias have symptoms of depression.” Researchers Richard Schulz and Peter Vitaliano, in two different studies, found that caregivers of people with AD and other dementias were more likely than non-caregivers to report their health as “fair” or “poor.” While loved ones can be of great help to the patient in their supportive role, they must guard their own health and wellbeing.
Positive effects of caring for AD family member include: an opportunity to reciprocate care to a parent, fulfilling a commitment to a spouse, a new sense of purpose and contribution to others and renewal of religious faith.
If you are a caregiver to a family member with AD:
• Learn about AD. Contact The Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center for information. Understanding breeds compassion.
• Focus on your family member’s needs as you safeguard his/her dignity, self- esteem and contentment.
• Get help. The Alzheimer’s Association lists support groups, volunteer respite, dementia information and referrals.
• Maintain your own health. Follow medical care, eat well, exercise and stay connected to friends.
• Add joy to your mission. Remember -You can give to others only what you personally own.