Alzheimer’s is an equal-opportunity destroyer

Who I am is partly due to my family history, my current experiences and my hope for the future. But if I can not remember where I came from, or what to do with myself now, who am I?

Alzheimer’s is an equal-opportunity destroyer. Perfectly intelligent and capable people can be struck with this disease. Anyone who has a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease can tell you it dramatically affects the social, mental and physical functioning of the individual. But it has a more widespread effect on family, friends and the larger community.

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative and pervasive brain dysfunction that has no obvious hallmark until it is has advanced enough for other people to notice. People can go years with Alzheimer’s disease and not know they have it. Some of that is due to believing that memory loss is just a part of aging, thereby accepting early signs of forgetting or confusion. Other reasons are the complete and utter fear that if the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, you will ultimately lose your self.

Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, and includes memory loss, confusion, and difficulties with problem solving. It is estimated that 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and as of yet, we have no cure. There are medications that seem to delay the progression of the disease, but cannot bring the individual back to pre-morbid functioning.

More profound are the behaviors that can occur during the progression of Alzheimer’s. They are perplexing, at times frustrating, and quite often bizarre. Individuals are unable to do basic tasks that they have always done in the past, like prepare a meal from their favorite and well-used recipe. Often they attempt to communicate their needs but are unable to remember the correct words. Sometimes they can’t ty their own shoelaces. This huge change in functioning takes a toll on them and their loved one and creates great sorrow for what is lost.

Behavior and the ability to function normally change through this disease, but what is still active and needs attention are feelings. My clients with Alzheimer’s can tell me that they are scared, frustrated, anxious and depressed. Family members discover they are grieving the loss of their loved one in stages. The person they knew is slowly disappearing, but is still there in physical form. How does one cope with the magnitude of this disease?

Support for the person with Alzheimer’s and support to the caregivers and family are very important. Not just from professionals, but from friends and the greater community. Just listening to the frustration, stress and sometimes the wonder that comes from caregiving can be a great help. Support groups are a great way to hear from other folks in the same situation and are fabulous for sharing ideas on coping with all issues of care.

Finally, educating yourself about the disease symptoms and progression, preparing for constant change and developing new strategies for coping can help in the many transitions that people face while living with Alzheimer’s disease.

To learn more about Alzheimer’s and other dementias and techniques for caregiving, come to a class taught by Betsy Zuber titled “Dementia: What is it?” on Tuesday, March 6, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Community Center at Mercer View. Call 236-3545 to register.

Betsy Zuber, Geriatric Specialist has been working in the field of aging for 16 years. She provides social services to people 55+ and their families who live on Mercer Island. Please contact her at 236-3525, e-mail, or mail MIYFS 2040 - 84th Avenue SE, Mercer Island, WA 98040. Mercer Island Youth & Family Services is a department of the City of Mercer Island.

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