By Terri Winkelmann, LPN, director of nursing at Twin Oaks Heritage Pointe
There’s a difference between forgetting and being absent minded. Setting your keys on the table and not remembering where you put them because you were thinking of something else when you set them down isn’t a cause for concern. Forgetting how to tie your shoes, unlock a door, start your car, get dressed and other tasks that you’ve done your whole life. That’s a sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.
Dementia isn’t a disease itself. It’s a group of symptoms that include diminished memory, thinking and social capabilities so severe that it affects daily function. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia. According to the National Institute on Aging, more than 5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s Disease.
November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, so now is a good time to be reminded that if you or a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia with the right medications, patience and understanding there can still be joy and good quality of life.
Advances in Medicine
I’ve spent most the last 28 years working with people who have Alzheimer’s or dementia. Along with more effective medications that slow mental decline, the most prevalent change in the medical and senior living community has been using patience and understanding in treating people on a day-to-day basis.
Formerly, the medical community used a technique called “reality orientation”. The idea was to try to teach the person with dementia or Alzheimer’s to relearn the memories that they had lost. For instance, people with dementia often can’t remember what day it is or where they are. We would surround them with indicators as to what month or day it was or we would try to make them remember where they were. Coupled with medications to relieve stress and anxiety, these treatments often left patients in a comatose and confused state.
Today, many of those treating dementia patients spend time getting to know the patient and understanding where they are in the progression of the disease. If they think the year is 1972, then we agree with them. If a patient refers to me as their daughter or sister, I go along with it. This approach is actually a relief for many families; to know it is okay to “lie” to their mom or dad. If the patient does become distressed, instead of drugs, we focus on physically and verbally comforting them and redirecting them to focus on a different topic.
Studies have shown that the biggest successes in senior living facilities that treat dementia (often called memory care) come from the relationship that the patients have with their caregivers. At Twin Oaks, we make a point of getting to know the residents and their family members. That way even if the time comes that the resident does not recognize us or know our name, on some level they understand our actions and that we’re there for them.
In recent years, many assisted living communities have established memory care wings that offer a more home-like environment, unlike a nursing home where the focus is more medical-based. Assisted living communities also offer residents the opportunity to age in place. Even if someone progresses into a later stage of Alzheimer’s and requires hospice care, most assisted living campuses can accommodate those needs. This is a huge comfort for the family since it allows their loved one to pass away in a place that they’ve called their home.
Is Alzheimer’s Preventable?
While much of the mechanisms behind dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease remain a mystery, the latest research shows that having an active mind can help prevent memory decline. This could mean learning a new language or teaching yourself how to write with your other hand. Many medical professionals also suggest to avoid smoking, exercise regularly, keep a healthy diet and be sure that your cholesterol is in the appropriate range.
Next Steps for those Diagnosed
While dementia and Alzheimer’s aren’t curable, there are things you can do to manage the progression. Here are some simple tips to help you and your loved one:
• Once you have a diagnosis, be sure to find a quality physician who specializes in dementia and gerontology.
• Update your will and make funeral arrangements. While it may seem morbid, it’s better to make plans now than have to struggle with these important plans later.
• Sleep is very important for brain function. Ensure that your loved one is getting a good night’s sleep every night.
• Healthy eating and exercise are very vital for older adults, so be sure nutritional needs are being met.
• Being socially active is good for brain development. Spend time with your loved one or find a local social group for him or her to participate in.
• Caring for a loved one can be difficult but help is available. Contact organizations in your area that offer respite care for at-home caregivers.
• There are many organizations and groups in the area that can help those whose loved one has memory loss. Contact the national Alzheimer’s Association to find a support group near you.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease are not a normal part of getting older but with proper support and guidance, the disease doesn’t have to mean the end of a happy and fulfilling life.
For more information on Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, visit www.ALZ.org.
Terri Winkelmann, LPN, is the director of nursing at Twin Oaks Heritage Pointe in Wentzville, MO. Throughout the year, Twin Oaks Senior Living raises funds for the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. For more information on Twin Oaks, visit http://twinoaks.me/.