Caregivers must have an understanding of normal aging-associated memory loss compared to progressive forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Our memories help shape who we are, so memory loss, like the silver tsunami sweeping the globe, represents a sea change in consciousness. Nearly five and a half million Americans currently struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, and this number is projected to more than triple by 2050.
While these statistics may seem formidable, the majority of adults over age 60 have some memory concerns. Age-related memory problems are not necessarily indicative of underlying illness — or the need for memory care — but rather the result of normal brain changes.
When a senior begins to act out of character, however, the first priority is to rule out an organic cause, such as Alzheimer’s or another form of memory loss. A recent study published in the journal Brain reveals that tau proteins, the primary cause of Alzheimer’s disease, appear to spread through the brain like an infection. So a medical exam and diagnosis is a vital first step.
Understanding Memory Loss vs. Normal Aging
An abrupt change in behavior, such as a mild-mannered senior suddenly starting to swear or becoming angry without provocation, may indicate the beginning of Alzheimer’s, but it could just as easily signify frustration with the many-layered loss of control that accompanies aging.
In addition, other conditions can mimic dementia in the elderly. A urinary tract infection (UTI) causes distinct physical symptoms in a younger person, such as painful urination or abdominal pain. But as we age, our immune response changes. A senior with a UTI can suddenly appear confused, agitated, or even begin hallucinating.
So it’s critical to understand the distinction between normal memory lapses that accompany the aging process, other conditions that can masquerade as dementia, and early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Every mental stutter is not a cause for concern!
Here are eight examples of normal aging versus early Alzheimer’s symptoms:
- Normal: What did I do with my car keys?
Alzheimer’s: Finding keys in the freezer. Or wondering what they’re for.
- Normal: What’s the name of that young man at the market?
Alzheimer’s: Blanking on names of family members and words for household objects.
- Normal: What were we talking about?
Alzheimer’s: We never discussed that.
- Normal: Turning up the heat.
Alzheimer’s: Dressing inappropriately: shorts in winter, coat on a summer day.
- Normal: Where’s my apple pie recipe?
Alzheimer’s: Can’t follow recipe directions.
- Normal: Oops. Forgot to record a check.
Alzheimer’s: Abstract thinking is difficult or impossible.
- Normal: Canceling plans because you caught a cold.
Alzheimer’s: Withdrawal from activities to sit in front of TV all day.
- Normal: Getting lost trying to find a new restaurant.
Alzheimer’s: Can’t remember how to get home.
Caregiving Challenges — And Rewards
Caring for a loved one with memory loss can be both challenging and rewarding. The challenges, of course, include lost work time, financial hardship, and overwhelm.
The price tag for informal caregiving by family members is a staggering $522 billion, according to a RAND Corporation study.
“Three out of five caregivers also are in the labor force. Working-age people under age 65 provide 22 billion of those 30 billion caregiving hours, and they often lose income due to reduced work hours,” reports the study. They also lose sleep, quality of life and relationships, and often their own health.
The emotional cost is also high as memory loss worsens. An elder might be verbally or emotionally abusive to a caregiver, adult child, or another person with whom they feel safe enough to do so. They may not even think they’re being offensive; just venting their pain or grief to someone they trust to hold their feelings.
Yet the rewards of Alzheimer’s caregiving are also great: deepening bonds through service, compassion, and ultimately, acceptance.
How Alzheimer’s and Caregiving Evolve Over Time
Alzheimer’s disease is progressive. Early, middle, and late-stage symptoms — and the level of caregiving associated with each stage — greatly affect whether someone is able to be cared for at home or would be better served in a memory care community such as Kensington Place.
- Early Stage Caregiving. In this initial stage, most people are still able to function independently, even continuing to work and drive. The caregiver’s role is one of support. As a care partner, this is the time to make decisions about the future, including legal, financial, and long-term care planning.
- Middle-Stage Caregiving. As someone moves into mid-stage Alzheimer’s, the caregiver’s role broadens. As it becomes more difficult for the person with Alzheimer’s to express thoughts and perform routine tasks, the caregiving role grows increasingly challenging. This is a time when it’s crucial for a caregiver to seek resources and support to avoid burnout.
- Late-Stage Caregiving. As the disease progresses, most people with Alzheimer’s will require full-time, around-the-clock care. While a memory care community provides for the resident’s physical needs and monitors their health, your role as caregiver becomes one of supporting their professional efforts through sensory stimulation. Even in late-stage Alzheimer’s, a patient may respond to his or her favorite music, favorite foods, or having you rub a well-loved hand cream into their skin.
When Memory Care Is the Best Option
At Kensington Place, we understand that we grow older differently, yet the aging process, however joy-filled, does by definition necessitate loss.
We recognize that memory loss is life-changing for everyone involved, and seek to focus on each resident’s strengths.
We encourage our senior residents and loved ones to find joy in the moment. Our goal is to make the days ahead more manageable, comfortable, and peaceful for those who live in our cozy environments, which are tailored to meet the evolving needs of residents with memory loss.