September is World Alzheimer’s Month, so we’re taking a closer look at this brain disorder. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, and even though someone in the UK develops dementia every three minutes, we still need to raise awareness.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s is characterised by loss of memory and thinking skills, and changes in behaviour. The disease is named after Dr Alois Alzheimer, who in 1906 discovered changes in the brain tissue of those living with it. It is these changes in the brain, including areas called plaques and tangles, that cause the symptoms of dementia. The damage generally starts in the part of the brain that controls memory and moves to the cerebral cortex, affecting language, reasoning and social behaviour. In time, it spreads further, affecting the ability to carry out simple tasks.
Who is affected by Alzheimer’s?
Age is the biggest risk for developing Alzheimer’s with most diagnosed being over 65. Early-onset Alzheimer’s affects younger people but it’s rare. It is thought that one in 14 people aged over 65 have Alzheimer’s, and the risk increases with age, with an estimated one in 6 people over 80 affected. People with Down Syndrome are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and at an earlier age. The presence of an extra chromosome means their brains develop the plaques associated with the disease and it is estimated that over half of people with Down Syndrome will develop Alzheimer’s.
How carers can help
In many cases, family members end up caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s. In the early stages, it may not seem like too much work to deal with some memory loss, but as the person’s character changes and they start to have trouble with everyday activities, it can become a difficult job.
A carer’s role includes practical things such as keeping track of medications and doctor’s appointments and taking care of finances, but there is much more to it than that. Helping the person find ways to stay occupied and find fulfilment in life is just as important as day-to-day caregiving. As the disease progresses, caregiving includes making sure the person is safe. They may not remember how to get home if they go out alone, or they may try cooking and forget to turn the cooker off. They may even need help with dressing and other personal tasks.
For anyone caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, it is important to know when to ask for help. Carers need to take care of their own health too, and that can mean enlisting family members, friends or professional carers to take some of the strain.
Carers who are trained in dealing with those with Alzheimer’s can be a great help. They know what to expect and the best ways to deal with sensitive situations, from calming an agitated mood to knowing the best ways to communicate in a way that is easy to understand.
Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is a delicate balance of doing enough to help without doing too much and ‘taking over’. It is important for the person to feel they maintain their independence and confidence. So while it may be easier to just do things for them, it is important to encourage them to do things for themselves, with some help if needed.
Supporting people living with Alzheimer’s
If you know someone with Alzheimer’s, perhaps you can offer support to their main caregiver. There are other ways to support people with Alzheimer’s, and the Alzheimer’s Society is a source of information.