At some point in our lives, many of us will become caregivers — whether taking care of a young child, or an aging parent. But as more and more Americans are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the role of a care provider will become more prevalent than ever before.
Consider this: nearly 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills — and that number is projected to triple with an aging baby boomer population in the coming years.
How do we as care providers plan for the future, both financially and legally? How do we communicate effectively without straining our relationships? And most importantly, how do we keep our loved ones safe, especially as their Alzheimer’s worsens with time?
These are the many questions that will be explored in a new series, Life as an Alzheimer’s Caregiver, which will provide tips and resources to effectively manage the complex role of care provider.
In the first of this series, Linda Jersin, M.Ed., LPC, CRC, Alzheimer’s Association Care and Support Specialist with the Baylor AT&T Memory Center, will walk us through the most critical aspect of providing care for those with Alzheimer’s: creating a safe environment to prevent injuries and prolong independence.
Keeping a Close Eye on Driving
As the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s affects a person’s decision-making skills and the ability to react quickly — and because of this, driving will eventually have to be stopped. But when?
“We have no way of knowing how quickly a person with Alzheimer’s might decline, and that is why it is important to set up a short-term and long-term plan for safety, especially around the issue of driving,” Linda said.
While placing limitations on driving can be seen as a threat to independence, dealing with the issue early on can help ease the transition. Jersin recommends asking the following questions:
- Are loved ones with Alzheimer’s coming home late, or getting lost?
- Is there vehicular damage, or dents in the garage?
- Are they becoming confused while driving in familiar places?
All of these are red flags that will require intervention. A comprehensive driving evaluation will help determine when limits should be placed on driving, as well as when to cease the operation all together.
Is it forgetfulness or Alzheimer’s?
When there are concerns, Linda recommends the use of a GPS tracking device specifically for caregivers to monitor their loved one’s driving activity, which provides greater visibility to issues earlier on while still providing some independence.
Taking Steps to Prevent Wandering
A person with Alzheimer’s may not remember his or her name or address, and can become confused, even in familiar places. It is no surprise then that 6 out of 10 will wander at some point — leaving caretakers in a precarious, scary situation.
“Wandering is one of the biggest threats to safety, as individuals often leave disoriented without identification or a cell phone, and can’t remember how to return home,” Linda said.
Regardless of disease stage, Linda recommends moving locks higher or lower to discourage leaving, setting up a caregiving schedule, and obtaining a MedicAlert® ID bracelet or pendant, which provides emergency information of caregivers in cases of wandering. She also suggests compiling all important documents, such as insurance, physician phone numbers, and medications, to keep handy in dire situations.
Even before wandering becomes a problem, adult day-care programs can be a great way to minimize safety issues in the home, while providing socialization and stimulation for loved ones.
Minimizing Risk in the Home
With so much to worry about, is it even possible for loved ones with Alzheimer’s to live safely in their homes? Of course it is, Linda said, as long as the correct precautions are taken, contingent on the stage.
“We encourage people to stay in their homes as long as they have the appropriate supervision to ensure their home is safe, and as long as they are seen regularly by a healthcare provider,” she said.
Linda works with families to develop in-home safety plans, which include the following precautions:
- Setting a home water temperature to 120 degrees or below to prevent burns
- Removing hazardous appliances that could catch fire
- Removing any weapons from the home, including knives at later stages of disease
- Storing away alcohol to prevent mixture with medications
- Covering or removing mirrors from home to decrease agitation, as reflections sometimes become unrecognizable
In some circumstances, an in-home physical therapy evaluation may identify and decrease risk factors for the patient that might not otherwise be determined.
Making it All Work
While the burdens of responsibility seem endless, the best way to manage Alzheimer’s as it progresses is to put a plan in place that works for everyone.
“Try to engage your loved one in the beginning to understand what his or her preferences are for long-term care and make them apart of the decision-making process — that way no decision will have to be made under duress,” Linda said.
Linda recommends taking advantage of many of the free resources that are available. Through a unique partnership between Baylor AT&T Memory Center and the Alzheimer’s Association, Baylor Scott & White Health provides free caregiver classes, ongoing support groups, and resources for legal assistance as families transition through the ever-changing care process which may include placement outside the home.
“All caregivers need help and support, and at some point, they may feel guilty if they have to place a loved one in a residential program,” Linda said. “But we try to get them to see that as long as their loved ones are getting their medications, provided adequate nutrition, engaged in activities to the highest degree possible, and having contact with their loved ones, placing a loved one in a safe facility is sometimes what’s best — and that does not diminish their support and love.”
For more information on available resources for Alzheimer’s caregivers, visit the AT&T Memory Center, the Alzheimer’s Association, or call the Alzheimer’s Helpline at 1-800-272-3900 for 24-hour support, seven days a week.