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What to expect with Alzheimer's

Nancy Abrahamson, St. Croix County Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) dementia specialist, said there is help for those who have dementia or think they may be showing the early stages of the disease. Free memory screenings and other resources can be found at local ADRCs. Sara Tischauser / RiverTown Multimedia

To some, the term Alzheimer's means memory loss, maybe forgetting some people's names, not remembering what has recently happened. But to those living with Alzheimer's themselves or those watching someone they love go through the stages of Alzheimer's, this disease may take on a completely new meaning.

June is Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness month and to many living with Alzheimer's, the reality of how this disease can change life has become all too apparent.

Nancy Abrahamson, St. Croix County Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) dementia specialist, said the progression of dementia/Alzheimer's in people can vary. She said people who are diagnosed with the disease later in life usually have a more gradual progression of the disease, while the disease progresses more quickly in those diagnosed at a younger age (ages 20-65).

Stages of Alzheimer's

According to the Alzheimer's Association of Greater Wisconsin in their "Care of Alzheimer's: A Manual for Nursing Home Staff," there are different stages of Alzheimer's.

The first (early) stage can start 2-4 years before and / or leading up to and including the initial diagnosis. During this period the person may have recent memory loss issues, get confused or lost going to places they know (like work), lose the initiative to start anything, changes in mood and / or personality, make bad decisions, take longer to do routine chores or have trouble handling money and paying bills.

The second (middle) stage can last 2-10 years after a person is diagnosed. Symptoms of the middle stage include increased memory loss and confusion, shorter attention span, problems recognizing friends/family, repeating what they have said, restlessness (especially late afternoon and night), muscle twitches occasionally, motor skill problems, difficulty organizing thoughts, trouble finding the right words, problems with reading, writing and numbers, becoming suspicious, doesn't want to bathe or is afraid to bathe, gains and loses weight, hears or sees things that are not there, and needs supervision all the time.

Terminal (late) stage usually lasts for 1-3 years. In this stage the person can't recognize family or himself or herself in the mirror, loses weight (even with good diet), has little capacity for self care, is unable to communicate with words, may put everything in his or her mouth, may touch everything, can't control bowel or bladder, may have seizures, may have difficulty swallowing and may have skin infections.

Warning signs

Abrahamson said there are some warning signs that people can watch for if they are concerned about Alzheimer's. However, people's symptoms may vary and not everyone will present with the disease in the same way.

"It may start in certain areas of the brain," Abrahamson said. "Short term memory loss is usually always one of the signs. Many see the world differently, visually and spatially, have trouble walking on uneven ground."

The Alzheimer's Association has 10 warning signs; more information can be found at www.alz.org/10-signs-symptoms-alzheimers-dementia.asp.

• Memory loss that disrupts daily life.

• Challenges in planning or solving problems.

• Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure.

• Confusion with time or place.

• Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.

• New problems with words in speaking or writing.

• Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.

• Decreased or poor judgement.

• Withdrawal from work or social activities.

• Change in mood and personality.

Abrahamson said if anyone is concerned they may have dementia or have some of the symptoms listed above, they can contact their local ADRC for a free memory screening. After the screening, if the results indicate the person should consult a doctor, the ADRC can refer the person to a doctor. However, having these symptoms does not necessarily mean someone has dementia and that is why it is important for the person to consult a professional.

"People need to know there are many things that can make it seem like you have dementia that are treatable," Abrahamson said. "Need skilled professionals to evaluate."

Understanding Alzheimer's symptoms

As Alzheimer's progresses, there are many different symptoms that a person can exhibit. These symptoms vary from person to person, but Abrahamson said having an understanding of what is going on can help deal with them.

Abrahamson said sometimes people with Alzheimer's become agitated or angry because people don't know how to communicate with them. People with this disease see the world differently and it can be difficult to comprehend what the person may want or need and this causes the person to become agitated.

"We try to tell them what we see is right, they can't see that way, not their reality," Abrahamson said. "If we communicate in an effective way we can minimize the symptoms we see."

One of the important aspects of communicating with someone who has Alzheimer's is to give the person time to understand what is going on.

"Slow down and give them time to process what we are saying or doing, not rushing, living in the moment," Abrahamson said.

Living in the moment is important, Abrahamson said. While the person with Alzheimer's may not remember those moments in detail, they will remember something about time spent together.

"People won't always remember what you say when they have dementia, but they will remember how you make them feel," Abrahamson said.

How to help someone with Alzheimer's

Abrahamson said when someone is diagnosed with dementia and/or Alzheimer's it is important to help that person keep as normal a life as possible.

"We want people to continue moving, but do that safely," Abrahamson said. "Maintain brain and body health, diet, exercise, good sleep, reduce stress, learning new things. We want people to be social and maintain their normal activities."

A person with dementia may have difficulty eating and may need help to make sure he/she is eating regularly. Sometimes when a person with dementia sees a full plate of food, the person becomes overwhelmed with food choices and won't eat. Sometimes putting less food on the plate will help the person eat more. She said also putting small snacks in different rooms of the house may help someone with dementia remember to eat.

Throughout the progression of Alzheimer's, Abrahamson said it may become more difficult for the person with the disease to speak, but it is still important for this person to know people care. She said holding their hand or rubbing their back can "let them know you care in that way."

"Even in last days there are still ways to connect with a loved one," Abrahamson said. "[They] still understand the sense of touch."

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