There’s a line in the latest film in the Rocky Balboa story – a movie called “Creed,” released in 2015 – that sums up the truth about sports, aging, and life in general. It comes along when a young man asks Rocky how he beat his father in a boxing match. Rocky says. “I didn’t beat your father. Time did. Time is undefeated.”
As our loved ones age, everyone faces the same dilemma. Whatever you might do to care for them, time wins in the end. Yet it is still incumbent upon us to provide the highest quality care we can for those who did the same for us when we were young.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition that affects the brain, which is the seat of our cognitive functioning and, thus, our personalities, emotions, and memories. All of these spheres of our lives are deeply affected by the condition that is mostly known for its profound debilitation of short-term and long-term memory.
Memory works in two different ways. We remember things in the short term – on one to 10-minute loops, for example. In this manner, we can remember a phone number that someone has just told us for one to 10 minutes. After that, we need to look up the phone number again unless we do something to move that memory to our long-term memory banks. This can be accomplished through repetition or by connecting the memory to other long-term memories – you put some things, in other words, in your long-term memory file, where it can stay for decades.
Losing memories is profound, sad, and very scary to those going through it. It is also deeply disturbing to loved ones, who see themselves slowly disappearing from the lives of those with Alzheimer’s. It’s one thing to stumble over someone’s name once in a while. It’s quite another thing to have someone you love not even remember they ever met you.
Former President Ronald Reagan’s daughter would take him for walks around the neighborhood. Of course, people would constantly wave hello to the former leader of the free world. In response, Reagan would remark to his daughter how friendly people seemed to be in his neighborhood and wonder aloud why that was. He had advanced Alzheimer’s and had forgotten he was once the president.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive illness with no cure, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, but there are treatments that can slow the progression or lessen the symptoms. According to one neurologist, Dr. Gayatri Devi of Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, the progression of the illness can be arrested, although, as quoted in a CBS Good Morning report, “it depends on the individual patient.”
For most caregivers, however, hope lies in creating a support system for your loved one that has dignity, comfort, and as much generosity as you can afford in managing the life of someone whose memories and personalities are slipping away. Caregivers need to gradually take charge of the patients’ daily needs, including food, exercise, sleep and even what to wear, working towards the point when an Alzheimer’s patient will require around the clock assistance.
Of course, you need to be organized yourself and follow the first rule among professional caregivers that is frequently said as, “First, do no harm.” You will need to organize the patient’s life and yours as well, so that you can manage living your own life and, eventually, much of the patient’s life, too. Planning in advance is critical, as is writing down routines because other caregivers will be taking over when you are too tired or busy to do so. Write down menus. Put a reputable pill identifier in place so that a new caregiver will not make medication mistakes. Research 24-hour care facilities in advance to make the eventual move as successful as possible.
All that said, here is a basic approach you might take for caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.
The first step, of course, is to get a proper diagnosis. Everyone, in time, suffers from various degrees of memory loss as they age, making it irresponsible to make a diagnosis by yourself or by looking up symptoms on the computer. Like any other serious condition, you need a doctor to make the final determination.
Once a diagnosis is made you will need to branch out your care in two directions at once. Remember, the care will eventually grow to be an all-encompassing program of assistance, so it might be wise from the get-go to find helpers who will see the progression through to the end. You might assign someone the task of taking care of the patients legal and financial obligations, while someone else is assigned the task of keeping up with the medical aspects of treatment and care.
The third step, and it can’t be stressed enough, is to contact professional organizations that already have years of experience dealing with Alzheimer’s patients. In looking up one such organization recently, I found a small, but critical, reminder for caregivers to take care of themselves and to not blame themselves for the devastating situation they find themselves in. It is not your fault this is happening, so don’t blame yourself. Wouldn’t it be nice to reach that understanding early in the process, rather than later?
Prepare for long-term care earlier rather than later. This does not mean send an Alzheimer’s patient to a live-in facility before their time, it simply means get ready for that step early, if that’s the route you want to eventually take.
Of course, review all the treatments available. Alzheimer’s disease can be managed by tackling each of the symptoms one at a time. It affects sleep quality. Well, there are medications that can help with that. It produces grave anxiety in some; there are medications that can help there, too. While we cannot cure Alzheimer’s yet, we can make the illness as manageable as possible and reduce suffering. If that’s the best we can do, then that’s what we should do.