How to care for someone with Alzheimer’s disease

Aging
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that destroys brain cells and affects a person’s memory, thoughts, and behaviors.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Alzheimer’s disease affected nearly 5.7 million adults living in the United States in 2016.

Many people who have Alzheimer’s receive daily assistance and care from their family members, partners, or close friends. According to the CDC, 32% of caregivers of people with dementia provide care for 5 or more years.

In this article, we discuss nine tips to help people care for someone with Alzheimer’s. We also cover self-care tips for caregivers and when to seek professional help.

1. Learn about Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s symptoms worsen as the disease progresses, which brings new challenges for caregivers. Understanding the stages of Alzheimer’s and their associated symptoms can help people plan ahead.

Alzheimer’s disease consists of three stages: mild, moderate, and severe.

Mild

a son with his mother showing how to care for someone with alzheimers
The progression of Alzheimer’s can affect how much care a person needs.

People who have mild or early stage Alzheimer’s disease can still function independently. They can continue participating in professional and social activities.

During this stage, people may have difficulty concentrating or remembering recent events. They may forget certain words or names.

Difficulties with writing and problem solving are some of the other early signs of Alzheimer’s. Learn more about mild signs and symptoms here.

Moderate

Moderate Alzheimer’s disease involves significant memory loss, confusion, and physical symptoms.

People at this stage may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • difficulty recognizing family members and close friends
  • difficulty organizing or following instructions
  • trouble performing regular daily tasks, such as getting dressed
  • restlessness or trouble falling asleep
  • wandering or getting lost
  • urinary or fecal incontinence
  • personality changes

Severe

People in the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease require help with almost all their basic daily activities, such as sitting up, walking, and eating.

During this stage, people may lose the ability to engage in conversation. They may have difficulty chewing or swallowing.

Many people with severe Alzheimer’s lose awareness of their environment and can no longer recognize their family members.


2. Create a routine

Caregivers can help someone feel more comfortable by establishing a constant daily routine. Doing this can help reinforce a sense of familiarity in the person who has Alzheimer’s.

Caregivers should try to avoid making significant changes to a routine, as this can be confusing for someone.

Sometimes, there are changes that are unavoidable, such as introducing a new care provider or switching care settings. Individuals with Alzheimer’s often require time to adjust to new people and places, so caregivers should try to implement changes gradually.


3. Plan activities

older adult listening to music
Planning activities, such as listening to music, can help keep a person with Alzheimer’s engaged.

Caregivers can keep their loved ones engaged and active with the following daily occupations:

  • cooking and baking
  • exercises, such as walking, stretching, and light weight training
  • dancing
  • listening to music
  • playing a simple board game
  • household chores, such as folding laundry and gardening
  • going to a favorite restaurant, museum, or park
  • seeing a movie
  • visiting friends and family

A caregiver can try planning outings around the time of day when the individual with Alzheimer’s is at their best, which can vary from person to person.

Some people may feel brightest in the morning, while others have more energy and are more alert at night. A caregiver can observe the individual’s energy levels during an outing and return home before they get too tired.

Some caregivers chose to carry small business cards to inform others, such as service workers, about their loved one’s conditions. The caregiver can hand these over discretely when appropriate.

The cards may say something like “My partner has Alzheimer’s disease and may say or do unexpected things. Thank you for your understanding.”


4. Promote ongoing communication

Alzheimer’s disease can significantly impact a person’s ability to communicate with others. They may have difficulty interpreting or remembering specific words. They may also frequently lose their train of thought in the middle of a sentence.

Caregivers can use the following strategies to make communication easier:

  • maintain eye contact and smile
  • ask only one question at a time
  • use the other person’s name
  • use open and relaxed body language
  • speak with a soft, calming voice, but avoid baby talk or oversimplifying
  • try to remain calm during angry outbursts

Promoting ongoing communication can give the person with Alzheimer’s the chance to participate in conversations and activities. Communication may also help relieve pressure for the caregiver.

5. Help them eat a nutritious diet

It is vital to help those with Alzheimer’s eat well and stay hydrated. People with Alzheimer’s may lose weight, especially if they:

  • cannot remember when they last ate
  • have forgotten how to cook
  • eat the same foods every day
  • are no longer aware of mealtimes
  • have lost the ability to smell and taste foods
  • have trouble chewing and swallowing

Caregivers can ensure a person gets enough nutritious food to eat by:

  • serving meals at the same time every day
  • serving food on colorful plates, which can help highlight the food
  • serve bigger portions at breakfast
  • encourage them to take a multivitamin
  • give them finger foods, such as cheese, fruits, or sandwiches cut into sections
  • make the dining area quiet by turning off the radio or television
  • select foods that are easy to chew and swallow


6. Boost their self-esteem

Looking and feeling good can help alleviate some of the anxiety Alzheimer’s causes by allowing a person to feel “more like themselves.”

Ways a caregiver can assist someone with hygiene and grooming include:

  • brushing their own teeth at the same time
  • helping them put on makeup if they usually wear it (but do not use eye makeup)
  • encouraging a person to shave if they usually do, helping if necessary
  • keeping their nails trimmed
  • allowing extra time for dressing
  • helping to choose and lay out outfits in order of how a person puts them on
  • buying them loose, comfortable clothing
  • buying clothing with Velcro or zippers instead of laces and buttons

7. Keep them safe

Lots of everyday situations can make a person with Alzheimer’s feel unsafe or put them in actual danger.

They may not be able to understand signs such as “wet floor.” Even stepping from one type of flooring to another — such as from hardwood to carpet — can be confusing.

Some safety tips include:

  • making sure they have sturdy, comfortable shoes
  • putting brightly colored tape on the edge of steps
  • padding any sharp corners on furniture
  • limiting mirrors in the house
  • placing “hot” and “cold” stickers near taps
  • turning the boiler temperature down to avoid burns
  • installing safety locks on the stove
  • making sure they take their medication correctly

If a person is still driving, look for signs that their driving may be a danger to others. The National Institute on Aging has more advice on driving and people with Alzheimer’s here.


8. Help them keep their animal companion

There are many benefits to having a pet for older people. Cats, dogs, and other animals can provide continuing love and companionship for someone with Alzheimer’s. For those in the early stages, taking care of a pet can help them keep active.

If it becomes more difficult for the person to care for their pet, people can consider ways to keep them together. This may mean asking a neighbor or community member to take a dog for walks or ensure a cat receives its food on time.

Some organizations, such as Meals on Wheels America, may also be able to deliver pet food. Look for local charities that provide dog walking, cat sitting, and temporary fostering services for older adults with health conditions.


9. Take courses or read guides

People can attend courses in person or do ones online that cover topics ranging from the early signs of Alzheimer’s to behavioral changes and financial planning.

People can find more information about caregiving by visiting the Alzheimer’s Association webpage or by reading this easy-to-use guide for caregivers from the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

These more comprehensive guides include step-by-step tips on how to help someone bathe, eat, and more.


Self-care for caregivers

Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s can affect a person’s life in many ways, including their ability to work and socialize. Caregivers may face new challenges every day, which can significantly impact their physical and mental well-being.

While caregivers may prioritize their loved one’s well-being above their own, it is important to keep in mind that quality care starts with a sound body and mind.

People can try these self-care tips to help reduce stress, cultivate compassion, and ward off fatigue.

  • Talk about it. Caregivers may avoid discussing their loved one’s condition with close friends and family. However, talking about one’s experiences, frustrations, and fears can help relieve emotional tension. People can try talking to a friend or counselor or joining a support group.
  • Get enough sleep every night. Adults require 7–9 hours of sleep each night. People who do not get enough sleep can experience irritability and confusion during the day.
  • Exercise daily. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommend that adults participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week. Physical activity can relieve stress, increases energy levels, and improve sleep.
  • Practice self-compassion. Caregivers may hold themselves to reaching unrealistic standards. While it is important for caregivers to stay calm when interacting with the person under their care, it is reasonable to experience negative feelings, such as anger, frustration, and sadness. Instead of feeling guilty when negative emotions surface, people will do better to observe these feelings without judgment.

When to seek professional help

A Smiling retired man with female home carer
A person may require professional help if they need full assistance with daily and personal care activities.

People who have Alzheimer’s disease will require more care as their condition progresses. Caregivers may need assistance in performing physically demanding tasks, such as bathing, moving, or dressing a person.

Caregivers may want to consider seeking professional help if their loved one:

  • requires full assistance with daily and personal care activities
  • loses the ability to walk
  • experiences a seizure
  • unexpectedly loses a significant amount of body weight
  • experiences a fall or other type of injury
  • has periods of anxiety or agitation
  • tends to wander away or get lost

Caregivers who experience adverse health effects, such as chronic stress, fatigue, or depression, may require professional assistance.

Ultimately, it is up to the caregiver and their family to decide when to seek professional help.


Summary

Caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease may experience a vast range of emotions, both positive and negative when helping their loved one.

There are many ways to help someone manage the effects of Alzheimer’s, including those in this article. Caregivers may require help from other family members or professional healthcare services as their loved one’s condition progresses.

Self-care is a vital but often overlooked aspect of caregiving. Caregivers can prevent adverse health effects from stress by building a strong support network, protecting their physical health, and practicing self-compassion.

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