By Dr. Elaine Ducharme

I often see individuals in my practice who are caring for aging parents. Many report they are exhausted and struggling with the role reversals. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia can be particularly overwhelming emotionally for the individual as well as the family. As we recognize National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and National Caregivers Awareness Month which begin this week, it’s important to be aware of the unique challenges Alzheimer’s and dementia patients and their caregivers face.

Over 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimers. And in Connecticut, 73,000 seniors aged 65 and over have Alzheimers Disease. The statistics are staggering and we have no cure. The Mayo Clinic notes that early symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease include :

• Memory impairment, such as difficulty remembering events
• Difficulty concentrating, planning or problem-solving
• Problems finishing daily tasks at home or at work
• Confusion with location or passage of time
• Having visual or space difficulties, such as not understanding distance in driving, getting lost or misplacing items
• Language problems, such as word-finding problems or reduced vocabulary in speech or writing
• Using poor judgment in decisions
• Withdrawal from work events or social engagements
• Changes in mood, such as depression or other behavior and personality changes.

It is very important to talk with your doctor or that of your loved one if you or they are experiencing any of these symptoms. Only a refined physician can accurately assess and diagnose the presence Alzheimer’s disease as there can be other causes for similar symptoms.

Along with this we need to recognize that nearly 60 percent of Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers rate the emotional stress of caregiving as high or very high, and more than one-third of them report symptoms of depression, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The demands of physical caregiving and constant supervision combined with the emotional toll of seeing a loved one so altered by dementia can be a lot to handle. However, the best thing caregivers can do for their loved ones is to stay mentally and physically strong.

Here are a few tips for caregivers:

Actively manage stress by taking time to exercise, meditate or talk to a friend. Finding positive, healthy ways to manage stress can lower the risk for negative health consequences.
Accept the changes that the person with dementia is facing. Even if they can’t remember a name, they may still recognize and have feelings for their friends and family.
Spend time with friends…even if it is for a quick cup of coffee.
Laugh. This may be hard when you are feeling stressed. Find a funny movie to watch, play with your pet or read a funny book. Laughter really makes us feel better!
Understand that no one can do this alone. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help.Seek support from friends, family or a support group. For many this support may be enough. But if a caregiver finds himself or herself overwhelmed, a psychologist may be able to help. Psychologists can work with the individual and family to develop strategies to improve quality of life and manage emotions related to the diagnosis.

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