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Coping with an Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

Imagine your doctor telling explaining that you have Alzheimer’s disease or some other type of dementia. Then, imagine being told, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do. You might want to start getting your affairs in order.’

Those newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s frequently say they felt overcome by hopelessness.  Authors Laura Gitlin and Nancy Hodgson’s new book, “Better Living With Dementia,” explains why it’s time for this “cycle of despair” to be broken. Gitlin is the Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University and Chair of the Department of Health and Human Services Advisory Council on Alzheimer’s Research, Care and Human Services. Hodgson is the Anthony Buividas endowed term chair in gerontology at the University of Pennsylvania.

These leading experts on care for people with cognitive impairment say that while there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are many things that can be done to make life better for people with dementia and their caregivers.

At a minimum, people newly diagnosed with dementia should consult with the Alzheimer’s Association, the Lewy Body Dementia Association, the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration and the government’s website, alzheimers.gov. These are all great sources of information and potential assistance. Individuals and families should also get referrals to elder law attorneys, financial planners, adult day centers, respite services, caregiver support services, and other resources.

About 70% of people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia live at home. Few professionals ask about patients’ living conditions, even though these environments play a major role in shaping people’s safety and well-being. It’s not uncommon for professionals to fail to let patients know what to expect as dementia progresses. This can foster isolation, which worsens their sense of despair.

Even small steps could help improve quality of life. For example, give focused attention to the home setting itself. Hire an occupational therapist, ideally with expertise in dementia, to do a home assessment and recommend modifications. It’s also important to know what to expect. Individuals with dementia and their caregivers will find their needs changing as their illness progresses.

Initially, the most critical need may be getting a reliable diagnosis and understanding more about the type of dementia identified by your physician. A new study by Johns Hopkins University reports that 60% of people with dementia haven’t been diagnosed or aren’t aware of their diagnosis.

Further, depression and anxiety may need to be addressed, because people can struggle with the reality of a diagnosis, withdraw from work or social activities and worry about the future. Looking for ways to keep people engaged with meaningful activities can become a challenge.

In the final stage, severe dementia, people need sensory stimulation, like enjoyable music or a fragrant bouquet of flowers. Addressing distress, discomfort and pain are the big care challenges.

Throughout every stage of this illness, “it’s important to let people with dementia know that they belong and surround them with a feeling of warmth and affection,” Hodgson said.

Reference: The Washington Post (August 9, 2018) “Learning To Live Well With Dementia”

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