For Alzheimer's Caregivers, Patience and Compassion Are Key

Expert advice for those facing the challenges brought on by the disease

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Using a calm voice is always important, and it's often easier to redirect attention than to try to get your friend or loved one to change a behavior. It's important to acknowledge any questions or requests, even though it may be the fifth time in 10 minutes that you've been asked what the time is. Each request is new to them.

Dinau said that she tries to keep routines as normal as possible. Instead of letting someone have dinner in bed, she guides them to the table to eat and then has a conversation with them during dinner. "A little activity here and there really helps," she said.

Mintzer also said it's important to have routine structure. Things can change within a day, but try to keep activities similar. For example, if Tuesday is the day you go out to lunch together, make a doctor's appointment for Tuesday. Then, while you're on your way to lunch, you can say something like, "Do you mind if we stop at the doctor on our way?" That way, he said, you're not changing the routine but just adding an element to it.

An array of devices also exist now that can help make a home safer for someone with Alzheimer's. He said these range from the very simple drawer and cabinet locks used to keep young children away from dangerous items to more high-tech safety devices like motion sensors for the stove and tracking devices that can be worn by people with Alzheimer's in case they wander.

But there does come a time when the disease ravages the brain so significantly that someone with Alzheimer's can't consistently control their behavior, Mintzer said. "When they get this impaired, they lack the ability to understand reality and suffer from delusions," he said, adding that medications that treat symptoms can be helpful at this point.

Though people with Alzheimer's can often stay in their homes, Mintzer said that if that's no longer safe, it's time to start looking into long-term care.

"When this time comes may be very different for different patients," he said. "If you live in the middle of New York City and you have a grocery store downstairs, it's irrelevant that your loved one can't drive anymore. If you're loved one lives in rural North Carolina and can't drive anymore, they will starve and need assistance or long-term care earlier."

More information

Learn more about caring for someone with Alzheimer's on a special website for caregivers set up by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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