According to the Alzheimer’s Association, over 6 million people in the United States of all ages are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and the number is projected to increase as the population ages.
Despite impacting such a large group, there is still a lack of understanding and awareness among the general population about this widespread and devastating condition.
Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, observed in November, spotlights this disease to help raise awareness, promote early detection, advocate for caregivers, and create supportive legislation and policy changes to improve the lives of those impacted by Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s Awareness Month aims to highlight the challenges for those living with Alzheimer’s and provides greater insight into the vital role family members and caretakers play in the lives of individuals with Alzheimer’s.
Agitation or Aggression
Alzheimer’s can cause behavioral changes in the person with the disease. They may become agitated, anxious, or even aggressive at times. These types of behavior are triggered by a variety of reasons that aren’t always apparent to an outside observer.
Several factors can cause these reactions in individuals with Alzheimer’s such as having an impaired ability to communicate effectively, being outside of their normal environment or routine, and certain medications used to manage Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Because Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease that affects brain function, it damages areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation contributing to unsettled behavior. In addition, Alzheimer’s may sometimes exacerbate pre-existing personality traits or prior emotional difficulties that may play a role in the development of aggressive or agitated behavior.
Being aware of any changes in a person’s typical demeanor is one of the first preventative steps in escalating symptoms.
It’s essential for caregivers and healthcare professionals to assess the specific triggers that create aggressive behavior in each individual and develop strategies to address them.
These strategies may include creating a calm and structured environment, ensuring physical comfort, improving communication techniques, and seeking medical evaluation for any underlying health issues or medication concerns.
In some cases, behavioral interventions and medication adjustments may be necessary to manage aggression effectively.
Wandering and Restlessness
Restlessness and wandering are common behavioral symptoms in people with Alzheimer’s disease caused by a combination of physical, psychological, and environmental factors. A person may wander in an attempt to find familiar surroundings or to search for something or someone they can’t remember.
Feelings of boredom can create the desire for an individual to wander to get some form of physical and/or mental stimulation.
Many individuals with Alzheimer’s experience ‘sundowning’ where their symptoms worsen late in the afternoon and evening. This may lead them to revert to past habits and routines, which can include wandering patterns from their earlier lives.
Managing restlessness and wandering in individuals with Alzheimer’s requires a holistic approach that addresses their physical and emotional needs. Implementing consistent strategies is an important preventative measure to ensure the safety of someone who tends to wander.
Such precautionary actions include creating a safe and familiar environment, providing structured daily routines, learning an individual’s cues to understand one’s needs, using redirection and gentle communication techniques, and involving healthcare professionals to manage any underlying medical issues or medication-related concerns.
Lack of Socialization
Individuals with Alzheimer’s can live an isolating existence and tend to withdraw from social interaction. They may feel frustrated in not being able to communicate effectively, have trouble finding the right words, or become embarrassed if they can’t recognize names and faces.
Loud and busy places can create sensory overload causing individuals to shut down or retreat to quieter environments.
Alzheimer’s can reduce a person’s ability to initiate social interaction such as not remembering how to start a conversation. In some cases, individuals may become suspicious of others’ intentions and perceive social interactions as threatening or uncomfortable, leading them to withdraw.
Any one of these factors can contribute to an individual feeling isolated which can negatively impact one’s mental and emotional well-being.
Being patient and understanding the cognitive, emotional, and environmental factors that are overwhelming for people with Alzheimer’s can help them feel more confident. Encouraging social engagement by providing a calm, inviting environment and offering simplified and clear communication can be a less threatening experience.
Facilitate small, familiar groups in a predictable environment to create interactions where an individual doesn’t feel embarrassed or uncomfortable if they do or say the wrong thing.
These approaches can help mitigate social withdrawal and enhance the person’s overall well-being.
Lack of Exercise
Exercise is an important component to help individuals with Alzheimer’s boost their strength and conditioning. Engaging in regular exercise increases circulation and blood flow to all of their body systems.
Exercise improves cardiovascular health, increases cognitive and brain functioning, enhances mood, reduces anxiety, helps maintain a healthy weight, and strengthens mobility, thus reducing the risks of falls and fractures.
While exercise is a valuable component of an individual’s health, certain factors may interfere with a person with Alzheimer’s ability or desire to participate. Due to cognitive impairment, an individual may have difficulty remembering exercise routines or remembering to do them regularly.
Some may experience generalized fatigue leading to a lack of motivation or desire. Alzheimer’s often leads to weakness whereby mobility can become increasingly difficult. Any one or a combination of these can be a deterrent to active engagement in exercise, despite the obvious benefits.
Addressing these barriers requires an individualized approach that takes into account a person’s specific needs and abilities.
Simplifying exercise routines, ensuring a safe environment, and enlisting the help of caregivers or exercise coaches to develop a personalized exercise plan is an essential part of facilitating a successful exercise program that considers the unique challenges presented by Alzheimer’s disease.
Refusal to Eat
Individuals with Alzheimer’s may stop eating for a variety of reasons that can have serious consequences on their health such as malnutrition and dehydration if the issue(s) is/are not addressed promptly.
Contributing factors for one’s refusal to eat may include not understanding the process, having lost the desire to eat due to changes in sense of taste or smell, not recognizing when they are hungry, or forgetting to eat altogether.
Some medications used to manage Alzheimer’s can have side effects, including loss of appetite or nausea.
As the disease progresses motor skills and coordination can deteriorate, making it challenging for individuals to use utensils or feed themselves. In addition, Alzheimer’s can affect the ability to swallow properly, which can lead to choking or discomfort while eating.
Because nutritional deficiencies can contribute to weakness, cognitive decline, undesirable weight loss, and a compromised immune system, it’s essential to have strategies to help individuals eat regularly and comfortably.
Caregivers and healthcare professionals can proactively support those with Alzheimer’s by monitoring their eating habits and nutritional considerations regularly.
Offering familiar and appealing meals, having smaller, more frequent meals and snacks, monitoring signs of swallowing difficulties, providing assistance with feeding when necessary, and/or consulting with a dietitian or nutritionist to create suitable meal plans are ways to ensure that a person is able to maintain healthy food and fluid intake for their overall well-being.
Connect with an ILS Caregiver
Caring for and/or living with a person with Alzheimer’s can be an emotional rollercoaster with feelings that include sadness, frustration, anger, guilt, and grief as the disease progresses over time. It’s a demanding and selfless role that requires patience, compassion, and understanding.
To support someone with Alzheimer’s requires a strong support system, including access to respite care, support groups, and professional help.
Independent Living Services (ILS), a division of United Disabilities Services, has 25 years of experience offering a holistic approach with a wide range of in-home, non-medical personal services to provide support to family and friends caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.
Find the support you need. Contact a knowledgeable, caring ILS representative to learn more.