Did you know there are more than 432,000, 65 years and older, who are living with various types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease? About two-thirds of these Canadians are women. And, with a growing and aging population, the Government of Canada expects that number to rise  even more.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

The disease kills brain cells until a person is incapable of performing tasks, remembering things and, eventually, of even performing bodily functions such as speaking or swallowing.

Risk factors for the disease include:

  • being female,
  • having Alzheimer’s in your family,
  • being diabetic,
  • smoking,
  • not engaging in physical -- and cognitive -- activity and
  • being depressed.

 

Warning signs of Alzheimer’s

  • Significant memory loss. Forgetting the names of family members, key appointments and familiar addresses may be a sign of Alzheimer’s.
  • Difficulty with everyday tasks. Preparing meals, tying shoelaces and buttoning a coat may suddenly present challenges.
  • Putting things in odd places. Are keys turning up in the fridge or a toothbrush in the dryer? Storing items in unusual places may be another warning sign.
  • Problems with speech. Some may forget simple words and slur their speech.
  • Changes in mood and behaviour. Sudden changes in personality, such as indifference, fearfulness, a lack of confidence, or suspiciousness could signal an issue. Sharp mood swings -- from euphoria to irritability -- may also be a clue to developing Alzheimer's.

Why early diagnosis is important

Though daunting, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s by no means indicates a person will decline rapidly. When their condition is caught early, many people take up new hobbies, learn new languages or take long-awaited vacations.

“There’s a lot of disbelief, sadness and worry about the future,” says Kathy Hickman, education manager for the Alzheimer Society of Ontario. “But recent advances in the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s have made possible a greater quality of life for many than was possible in the past.”

The key is getting diagnosed early.

What if it’s not caught until an advanced stage? Then a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can be very challenging, says Marija Padjen, chief program officer for the Alzheimer Society of Toronto. And the strain of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s can lead to physical and mental-health issues for the caregiver.  Such health issues include:

  • decreased immunity,
  • higher levels of stress hormones,
  • depression and anxiety,
  • insomnia and
  • muscle and back issues.

6 important tips for Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers

1. Remember your own needs as a caregiver

While the person with Alzheimer’s is the centre of attention, don’t neglect yourself. “This isn’t a disease you can cope with by yourself,” says Padjen. Call upon friends to give you a break, plan nights out, take 10-minute mental-health breaks -- even if it’s just a bath or a walk around the block.

2. Seek counselling if you feel anxiety and depression mounting

It’s normal to feel guilt, sadness, and anger after a diagnosis. Don’t be afraid to get help or emotional support whenever you need it.

Do you have employee benefits? Reach out to your HR department to see if your benefits include an employee assistance program (EAP). These programs often provide 24-hour support to employees who need to resolve mental or physical health issues. They may offer e-therapy or virtual counselling sessions if you need it.

You can also ask a medical professional if there are any mental-health programs or services in your area that are funded by the provincial or federal government.

3. Delegate if possible and ask others for help

While you may feel like it’s your duty to care for your spouse or parent, ask family members or friends to drive the person with Alzheimer’s to the doctor, buy groceries or tidy up the house.

4. Join support groups online to share experiences 

One option is the Alzheimer Society Message Board. Another online resource is Alzlive, a comprehensive website for those who care for people with Alzheimer’s.

5. Set up meetings with financial planners, attorneys, etc. 

Try to do this as soon as possible, while the person with Alzheimer’s is still functioning well. This way you can make sure there’s a will in place, along with a power of attorney, in case their dementia worsens. Remember, you want to ensure your loved one’s finances remain secure and intact before they enter a late stage of dementia.

6. Make time for physical activity and sleep

Self-care is always important and essential. Sneaking in a workout or getting a bit of rest can help you get the break you need.

People with Alzheimer’s can improve their quality of life by:

  • Staying socially and physically active
  • Challenging themselves with new hobbies or activities
  • Eating a healthy diet high in antioxidants, greens and whole grains
  • Asking their doctors about medications that can improve symptoms
    • Check out Lumino Health  to find a health-care provider near you or learn more about virtual care.