By Paula Kollstedt, Executive Director, Alzheimer’s Association, Greater Cincinnati
…Sixth leading killer in the U.S.,
…Only disease among the top 10 that has no survivors,
…An illness that kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.
When President Ronald Reagan designated November National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month in 1983, little did he know that Alzheimer’s would grow to become not only the most feared disease in the nation, but the most expensive as well – costing our nation more than $277 billion a year and threatening the future of both Medicare and Medicaid.
Nor did President Reagan know that Alzheimer’s would be a disease he and his family would personally and courageously battle themselves.
Thirty-five years later, Alzheimer’s awareness has taken on even greater urgency.
Today, 5.7 million Americans have Alzheimer’s – a terrifying neurodegenerative brain disease that steals not only memories, but the ability to think, make decisions, speak and walk, ultimately taking life itself.
Because of that trajectory, Alzheimer’s impacts not only millions of Americans diagnosed, but also 16 million family members and friends who are by their side as unpaid caregivers. These dedicated individuals provide 18.4 billion hours of care every year, and often have to alter their lives and their livelihoods to provide needed assistance.
All of which makes it even more special that November is also National Family Caregivers Month – honoring those incredible, unsung heroes who provide 24/7 care, often at great cost to themselves.
At the Alzheimer’s Association, we work with those great caregivers every day, and we stand in awe of their heroism and all that they do for others. Our job at the Association is care and cure of those battling dementia, which includes caring for caregivers.
Caregiving is one of the toughest jobs you’ll ever have. To assist those who are caring for someone with dementia, we offer the following 10 tips to alleviate caregiver stress.
- Find time for yourself. Take advantage of respite care so you can have a temporary rest from caregiving while your loved one receives care in a safe environment. Visit alz.org/care to learn more.
- Seek out community resources. Contact the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 Helpline (800-272-3900) or use our online Community Resource Finder (alz.org/CRF) to locate dementia care resources in your area. Adult day programs, in-home assistance, companions and meal delivery are just some of the services that can help you manage daily tasks.
- Become an educated caregiver. As the disease progresses, you may have to learn or adopt new caregiving skills. The Association offers programs to help you better understand and cope with common behavioral and personality changes that may occur. Visit the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Caregiver Center at alz.org/care to learn more and access care training resources, including free online workshops.
- Get help and find support. Our 24/7 Helpline, ALZConnected® online social networking community (alzconnected.org), and local support groups (alz.org/findus) are good resources. But, if stress becomes overwhelming, seek help from a doctor or counselor.
- Take care of yourself. Try to eat well, exercise and get plenty of rest. Making sure you are healthy can help you be a better caregiver.
- Manage your level of stress. Stress can cause physical problems (blurred vision, stomach irritation, high blood pressure) and changes in behavior (irritability, lack of concentration, change in appetite). Note your symptoms and discuss with a doctor, as needed.
- Accept changes as they occur. People with Alzheimer’s disease change over time and so do their needs. They may require care beyond what you can provide on your own. Becoming aware of community resources — from home care services to residential care — can make the transition easier. So will the support and assistance of those around you.
- Make legal and financial plans. Putting legal and financial plans in place after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis allows the person with the disease to participate in decision-making. Having these plans in place can provide comfort to the entire family. Many documents, including advance directives, can be prepared without the help of an attorney. However, if you’re unsure about how to complete legal documents or make financial plans, you may want to seek assistance from an attorney specializing in elder law, a financial advisor who is familiar with elder or long-term care planning, or both.
- Know you’re doing your best. Remember that the care you provide makes a difference and that you’re doing the best you can. You may feel guilty because you can’t do more, but care needs increase as Alzheimer’s progresses. You can’t promise how care will be delivered, but you can make sure that the person with the disease is well cared for and safe.
- Visit your doctor regularly. Take time to get regular checkups and pay attention to any exhaustion, stress, sleeplessness or changes in appetite or behavior. Ignoring symptoms can cause your physical and mental health to decline.
The race against Alzheimer’s is a race against time, but momentum is building. Together we are changing history and one day we will find prevention and a cure. In the meantime, we are here for those with their disease and the amazing caregivers who support them.