How to Help a Family with Alzheimer’s

As a friend of a family care team facing the challenge of Alzheimer’s disease, it can be hard to know how to help.   You may not know how to communicate with the person with dementia, or how to respond to their worsening symptoms.  You may not be able to spend as much time with their caregiver as you used to.  Despite these changes, you can still support your friends and family in critical ways.

Maintain your relationship with the person with Alzheimer’s

Studies have shown that people with memory loss, cognitive impairment, and even Alzheimer’s disease really benefit from social interaction.  Unfortunately, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can be very stigmatizing, and the symptoms it causes make it more difficult for people to manage conversations and social situations.  This can lead to people with dementia becoming isolated, which can have consequences for their emotional and cognitive health.

In the early stages of the disease, don’t let your alarmed reaction to their symptoms or slight changes in their behavior or abilities deter you from reaching out.  Think of how you can modify activities you’ve always enjoyed together, or select a project or hobby that is appropriate to their ability level, such as gardening or watching sporting events.  This can give you a subject to connect on, and something to structure your visit around (but remember to remain flexible to what the person’s needs are that day).  Always treat the person with dignity, and focus on the things they are still able to do.

Even in the middle to later stages of the disease, when the person is more confused and has lost more of their memories, it is very possible to make a connection.  Remember that emotional memories linger for longer than factual memories, so even if the person doesn’t recognize you, or doesn’t remember that you visited, the warmth and love you shared with them will brighten their day for long after you’ve left.

Support their caregiver

In many ways, the best way to ensure that the person with dementia is happy, comfortable, and thriving is to seek the same outcomes in their caregiver.  Caring for a person with dementia is an enormous responsibility, and a caregiver who has become overwhelmed won’t have the patience necessary to properly care for their loved one.  Here are some simple ways that you can make the primary caregiver’s life a little easier:

  1. Be specific when offering help.

Many caregivers struggle with asking for help, they feel a duty to manage their loved one’s care alone.  So when you invite them to “let me know if you need anything,” you’re likely not to get a follow up.  By offering proactive, concrete suggestions in response to their stated concerns, you eliminate the need for them to reach out for help.  Below are some specific ways you can be helpful.

  1. Take the little tasks off their plate

Finding time to run errands when you’re caring for someone who can’t be left alone can be very difficult.  Offer to pick up groceries, prescriptions, dry cleaning, kids from school, etc.  If you’re on your way out to run and errand, call the caregiver to see if there’s anything they’d like you to pick up.

  1. Provide respite care

Give the caregiver some time to themselves by offering to look after their loved one for a few hours, or even for a weekend.  Suggest days and times of the week you’re available.  Even a short break can allow the person to attend a support group, see a funny movie, get some exercise, anything that replenishes their mental and emotional energy.  Knowing they have a break to look forward to can make caregiving easier, and it’s likely that the person with dementia will benefit from the break, too.

  1. Offer transportation

Once a person’s dementia advances past a certain point, it is very unsafe for them to continue to drive.  Convincing a loved one to give up this staple of adult life is easier when a caregiver has transportation alternatives to offer.  Volunteer to drive the person with dementia to hair and doctor appointments, senior or respite centers, or to any other activity the person enjoys.

  1. Be a good listener

When the caregiver needs to talk to someone, be there to listen without judging or trying to solve their problem.  Sometimes just being heard can help.
Educate yourself and take action!

As we mentioned above, there is a lot of stigma around Alzheimer’s disease, and a lot of it stems from a lack of understanding of how Alzheimer’s affects a person’s thinking and behavior.  You will be a stronger part of your friends’ care team if you understand what they are dealing with.

Attending one of our Alzheimer’s classes, held monthly in Austin, Georgetown, and San Marcos, is a great place to get started.  You could also visit our website, www.txalz.org to learn some tips for communicating with a person with dementia, and understand the triggers of some of their behaviors.  Or, call our helpline at 1-512-241-0420 with any questions.

Finally, a great way to help a family with Alzheimer’s is to get involved in the Alzheimer’s Texas Walks!  This event supports Alzheimer’s research, and our extensive suite of caregiver support programs.  We believe a world without Alzheimer’s is possible, but we need your help to get there.  Alzheimer’s Texas will host Walks in Georgetown, Austin, Temple, and San Marcos, we invite you to sign up a team for an event near you.  Get more information by calling 512-241-0420, or visit www.txalz.org/walk.

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