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Living With Alzheimer's Disease

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Updated April 22, 2009

The key to coping with Alzheimer's is to understand the relationship between your brain and your behavior. Once you understand this relationship, you can approach your diagnosis with compassion and courage. Consider these 10 tips your credo for living with Alzheimer's disease.

1. Appreciate the Power of the Brain

The brain is the source of your thoughts, emotions, personality, and behavior. Everything you experience in life, and every decision or action you make, can be traced back to your brain.

2. Remember that Alzheimer's is a Disease of the Brain

Although more and more people are recognizing Alzheimer's as a medical condition, many still believe that Alzheimer's is a mental illness, a psychological weakness, or simply what happens when we get old. This stigma is dangerous because it suggests that Alzheimer's is something we bring on ourselves or let happen to us.

3. Consider That Alzheimer's Affects Everything the Brain Controls

If your brain affects your thoughts, feelings, personality, and behavior, and Alzheimer's is a disease of the brain, then Alzheimer's is going to affect how you think, what you feel, who you are, and what you do. Don't underestimate the range of symptoms that can be traced back to what's happening in the brain.

4. You Don't Have to Look Sick to Be Suffering from a Physical Illness

Although Alzheimer's disease is a physical illness, it probably won't affect your appearance until the later stages of the disease. This can be confusing to those around you, because you may seem as healthy as ever -- you're just acting differently. Remember that you don't have to look sick to be experiencing Alzheimer's disease.

5. Prepare Yourself for the Unpredictable

Alzheimer's disease affects different parts of the brain at different times and at different rates. Have you ever had a loose lightbulb in the house? Sometimes it works; other times, it doesn't, even though you haven't touched the lightbulb since the last time it worked. That's kind of how Alzheimer's affects the brain. Although you will go through some predictable stages, the stages are not clear cut and often overlap.

6. Ask Loved Ones To Break Tasks Into Smaller Steps

Tasks that used to seem simple actually are made up of many steps that may be overwhelming to you now. For example, brushing your teeth has always seemed like one task -- but if you think about it, tooth brushing is actually made up of many steps (picking up the toothbrush, taking the cap off the toothpaste, and so on). If Alzheimer's has affected your brain in such a way that you don't remember all the steps or don't remember how the steps are sequenced, then you might have difficulty brushing your teeth unless your loved ones break it down into smaller actions for you.

7. Don't Blame Yourself

This is probably the most important thing to remember, and it builds upon the first six tips: Behavior changes you experience are caused by damage to the brain and are not something you can control or prevent. If you become upset with your loved ones, they might find it hard not to take it personally. But don't blame yourself -- your behavior was simply caused by damage to the brain.

8. Ask Your Loved Ones For Patience

Alzheimer's makes it more difficult to learn, understand, reason, or remember. Because arguments can only occur between people who can do all of these things, quarreling is futile. Instead, ask your loved ones to show patience and provide comfort. They can also redirect the situation to a pleasant activity that you can enjoy together, such as taking a walk, watching a favorite movie, or reminiscing about old photographs or antiques.

9. Ask Your Loved Ones To Look for Signs of Distress

As you live with Alzheimer's, you might experience a progressively lowered stress threshold, meaning that the amount of stress you can handle before experiencing discomfort or emotional upset decreases over time. Therefore, you may become distressed more easily and are less able to explain why you're distressed. Your loved ones should watch for subtle signs of discomfort, such as pacing or fidgeting, and learn what may trigger your stress reactions.

10. Accept the Brain-Behavior Relationship

The key to living with Alzheimer's is not only to understand the brain-behavior relationship, but also to accept it. Once you do, you can take good care of yourself, teach others about your needs, and look upon your disease with a compassionate, nonjudgmental attitude.

Sources:

Charter of Principles for the Care of People With Dementia and Their Carers. Alzheimer's Disease International. May 25, 2005. http://www.alz.co.uk/adi/charter.html

Coping With Changes. Alzheimer's Association. October 16, 2007. http://www.alz.org/living_with_alzheimers_coping_with_changes.asp

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