My mom was a nurse, too. Her specialty was geriatrics (the elderly). When I was a kid, she worked in nursing homes, and every Thanksgiving, the residents in her nursing home that were able to get around on their own and didn’t have families to visit, she would have over to our house. Many of those folks were in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
When I was in nursing school, she ran an adult day care center that specialized in Alzheimer’s patients, and I worked for her as a nursing assistant for a couple of days a week. Because of those experiences, Alzheimer’s was one of the first chronic conditions where I really understood how some conditions don’t just affect the patient, they affect the entire family.
When I talk to patients and families about Alzheimer’s, I always describe it as the forgetting disease. They way Alzheimer’s works is that people forget in the reverse order of how they learned things. So, the most recent things are the things that are forgotten first. So, they forget recent events, or meeting people.
Eventually in the late stages, people forget their grandchildren, then their children, and then even spouses. Eventually, people forget how to eat and at the end, they forget the very first thing they learned, how to breathe. I think that is why Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia are so hard on families. Knowing someone you love so much you would die for them has forgotten your name has to be one of the most difficult things any family could face.
Alzheimer’s disease is like most health conditions, the earlier we diagnose and start treatment the better patients do. Unfortunately, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, yet. But there have been huge advances in the medications that slow the progression of it. That is why Alzheimer’s Month in the U.S., and World Alzheimer’s Day on Sept. 21 are so important. It’s a day where we talk about Alzheimer’s and recognizing the symptoms early.
One of the big issues with Alzheimer’s in the early stages is that it can be subtle. We all have days where we forget what we had for breakfast, or where we parked the car when we go shopping, or where we put the remote or the car keys.
The thing that makes Alzheimer’s different is there is a pattern to that forgetfulness. It’s not an occasional thing, it’s a regular issue. People in the early stages of Alzheimer’s also have difficulty concentrating, planning, or organizing. For example, things like making decisions, solving problems, or carrying out a sequence of tasks like a hobby project, or making a meal become challenging.
The early stages of Alzheimer’s can also show up in language skills. People will have more difficulty following conversations or finding the right words. They also can have visuospatial skill losses. In other words, they don’t judge distances well or have difficulty seeing things in three dimensions.
The loss of those skills can lead to falls and driving issues, and that may be one of the things families pick up on first. Finally, early Alzheimer’s can cause loss of orientation where people lose track of the day or date or become confused about where they are.
Alzheimer’s can also cause mood swings where people are more easily irritated or frustrated, they can become apathetic, sad, or withdrawn, the also can be unusually anxious or easily upset.
If you are concerned you are seeing early signs of Alzheimer’s in yourself or in someone you love, please speak to your primary health care provider. They can start evaluations, testing, and get you with the specialists that are needed to diagnose and begin early treatment.
The Alzheimer’s Association has a great website with resources from Alzheimer’s information, help in finding specialists and support groups, and even things like finding help caring for someone who has Alzheimer’s. Their website is www.alz.org. That website also has information on things you can do to raise awareness and support Alzheimer’s research towards a cure.
We are making strides every day in understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s. The best thing to celebrate in this month of Alzheimer’s awareness is that there is a distinct possibility that there will be a cure in the next couple of decades. I really hope I get to see that day.