Contributed by Michelle Hassler
For years, my family desperately tried to navigate through the confusion, worry, and loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease. My grandmother was slipping away before our very eyes. With heavy hearts, we watched her struggle with daily activities and saw her sweet and quiet demeanor become hostile and withdrawn. Eventually, we were met with the devastating realization that she no longer knew us. She no longer knew herself.
A woman who lived a beautiful life full of love and family could not recall any part of it. As time passed, she lost her ability to walk, talk, eat, or use the restroom. We watched her transform into a shell of her former self as she progressed through the stages of Alzheimer’s and could not do anything to prevent it. Instead, we stood back and admired my grandfather’s undying love and devotion as he diligently cared for her for many years. He lost the love of his life – long before he laid her to rest.
Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. This is why we need to talk. Talking about Alzheimer’s and learning the facts will increase awareness. Awareness inspires action and hope. June has recently been designated Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, so there will be plenty of events in your community to help increase awareness for Alzheimer’s disease and raise funds in hopes of finding a cure.
In 2015, a staggering 5.3 million Americans are estimated to have Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association considers Alzheimer’s to be a triple threat due to the following statistics:
- Every 67 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s.
- It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.
- The only cause of death in the top 10 that can’t be prevented, cured or slowed.
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. The disease prevents brain cells from working correctly. Scientists are unsure as to how this breakdown starts. However, as damage spreads, cells die and cause irreversible damage to brain. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s and it cannot be stopped or reversed. However, an early diagnosis can allow an advantage when planning for the future.
There are three general stages of Alzheimer’s disease: mild, moderate, and severe. However, it is important to note that individuals with Alzheimer’s experience certain stages of Alzheimer’s differently and progress at different rates. Changes in the brain related to Alzheimer’s occur before there are any visible signs. This time period is referred to as preclinical Alzheimer’s disease and can begin years before any outward signs of Alzheimer’s appear.
Over time, symptoms of Alzheimer’s worsen interfering with the ability to function and requiring increased care. It may be difficult to place your loved one in a stage as stages may overlap and symptoms can fluctuate on a daily basis. When working with a patient, a doctor will most likely use a more specific, clinical scale.
Below are the three general stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
During the early stages of Alzheimer’s, your loved one could still be quite independent in many areas. However, the person may experience lapses in memory particularly when it comes to recent conversations or events. In addition, your loved one may not be able to recall familiar words or they may forget where things are located around the house. This can be frustrating, especially as these lapses become more frequent. Family and friends may start to notice this “forgetfulness.”
There may also be problems with coordination when it comes to tasks like writing and using everyday objects at home or work. Trouble concentrating, planning and organizing are symptoms of this stage as well. Early stage diagnoses are rare considering most of these symptoms are also a factor of aging. Thus, Alzheimer’s is typically diagnosed during the mild stage.
During the moderate stage of Alzheimer’s, symptoms will become more noticeable to others. Ordinary tasks like paying bills or driving become increasingly difficult. Your loved one may forget personal facts about his/her life or be unable to recognize family members and friends. Confusing words and acting out are also common during the moderate stage of Alzheimer’s, as well as not being able to recall personal information such as a phone number or address.
Individuals may not be able to recognize family members and friends. Your loved one may lose control of their bladder. They may also get lost in familiar places or start to wander when left unsupervised. Sleep disturbances are also common as well as hallucinations. This is normally one of the longest stages of Alzheimer’s and can last several years. Near the end of this stage, the individual often requires increased care.
Severe Alzheimer’s usually requires round the clock care. This is often an extremely difficult stage for the family as they watch their loved one lose the ability to function physically and mentally. Individuals usually lose the ability to respond to their environment. Most can no longer converse, move independently, or swallow. During this stage, they are more vulnerable to contracting skin infections and pneumonia. Seizures are also prevalent. As severe Alzheimer’s progresses, body systems shut down requiring individuals to remain in bed.
Researchers are trying to discover more about the workings of Alzheimer’s disease. Ninety percent of what we know about Alzheimer’s disease has been uncovered within the last 15 years. With Alzheimer’s at the forefront of medical research, there is hope that a cure or treatment will be discovered in the future.
This month, take some time to call special attention to a disease that affects so many. You can help to raise funds and awareness by choosing to take the Purple Pledge or form a team to participate in The Longest Day. The Longest Day event takes place during the summer solstice on June 21 to symbolize the challenging journey taken by those living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. I will be participating to honor the memory of a very special woman and the struggles that she experienced. Join us at Lotsa Helping Hands in raising awareness for Alzheimer’s!