By Jessica Levco, Seniors for Living
Paul Raia, vice president for patient care and family support at the Massachusetts and New Hampshire Alzheimer's Association says the most significant developments in memory care have been on the care side, rather than pharmaceutical approaches.
According to Raia, 5.1 million people in the United States suffer from Alzheimer's. He projects that 10 years from now, without a cure, 16 million people will have Alzheimer's—and caregivers, patients and family members will have to learn how best to cope with the disease. As baby boomers advance in age, so will the number of patients, Raia says.
Even with the expected increase, Raia says there's better diagnostics, more awareness and public support about the disease than ever before. With new research being completed on behavioral techniques, he compares the disease to how people think about diabetes. Given the proper tools, it can be managed and the lifespan of a person can increase.
"The focus now is teaching techniques and giving support to people," Raia says. "By doing this, we can help avoid problematic symptoms that occur in the later stages of the disease. Looking down the horizon, we want to be able to help people maintain Alzheimer's in the earlier stages."
As a way to help patients and caregivers deal with the disease, Raia developed a concept called "Habilitation Therapy." He says this makes it possible for Alzheimer's patients to deal with their emotions and maximize whatever mental capabilities they still possess. Not to be confused with the word "re-habilitation," Raia is aware that this isn't a therapy that can restore people, but give them an opportunity to lead a longer and more productive life.
At the core of Habilitation Therapy is creating positive emotions for patients. By using special communicative techniques for managing behavior, dealing with Alzheimer's can be better for the patient and the caregiver.
For example, Raia says that it is important for caregivers and family to realize they can't change their loved one's behavior—but they can modify it. Raia says to never use the word "no" to a patient, even if they wake up at 4 a.m. and ask to go roller skating.
"If you tell them 'no,' it sets the tone for an adversarial relationship," Raia says. "So, it's important for you to try to re-direct it. You could say, 'Oh, that's a great idea, but why don't we have a cup of coffee or a sandwich first? What's your favorite? We can make it together.' You can do things to take their attention away from what they originally asked for."
Another classic example Raia sees is when a family member will point to a picture and say, "Do you remember who this is?" The patient has no clue who that person is and will think, "I must be sick." "You don't want to set them up for failure," Raia says. "A better way to do it would be to point to the picture and say, 'This is so-and-so and this is what you did together.' You want to create a positive emotion."
In the later stages of the disease, it's important for the caregiver to remember that the patient is living in his or her own reality.
"If they tell you they saw their mother and their mother is dead, don't tell them that," Raia says. "If you tell them [she died], it will be the first time they've heard it. They'll be put through a loop of sadness, but soon, they'll forget what you told them and they'll be left feeling upset. It's better for you to ask them questions about their mother and say what a wonderful person she is."
When your loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Raia says it's important to read as much as you can about the disease to see how it will affect you and your loved one. After an initial diagnosis, Raia recommends the following for a patient:
- Work together with your health care team and visit your psychiatrist, primary care doctor and neurologist. Make sure the diagnosis is confirmed and all the doctors are working together as a team.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. Incorporate plenty of dark greens, bright fruits, whole grains and fish into daily meals. Avoid simple starches.
- Start doing mental exercises, such as playing computer-based games or cards.
- Aerobic exercise is critical, even something as simple as taking a brisk walk.
- Stay connected socially by getting involved in different community clubs or religious organizations.