Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease

Jamie Hammer, director of nursing at Trinity Homes, displays some of the sensory activities that Alzheimer’s patients work with at the nursing home. Andrea Johnson/MDN

Alzheimer’s disease can be a disease as devastating for family members as it is for those who are living with the degenerative brain disease.

Chennille Currier, Williston, has two family members living with the disease – her mother, Debby Olson, and her grandfather.

“My mom is directly affected,” said Currier. “She was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at 56.”

Currier and other family members resolved to care for their loved one as best they can at home.

“You just take every day as it comes,” said Currier. “My, dad, myself and three siblings serve as caretakers for her.”

Currier said there were behavioral changes that indicated there was something very wrong with her mom.

“She was let go from a position that she’d worked in for 15 years because she wasn’t able to catch on to the software,” said Currier.

She said Currier struggled to find the words for something she wanted to say. She withdrew from activities, even though she’d always been very active in the community.

Currier and her family learned that there is no cure as yet and no real way to slow the onset of the disease, but medical professionals do what they can to manage the symptoms.

It is hard to explain the effects of the illness to people who don’t live with it day by day. Currier said she stresses the importance of a support network and for caretakers to take the time to care for themselves as well.

Her mom still lives at home with her husband and her children help care for her. Her paternal grandfather, who also has Alzheimer’s, is also able to live at home and is cared for by family.

A large group of family and friends walked to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association last month. She said the Alzheimer’s Association is a great resource for people living with Alzheimer’s and for their caregivers.

The organization is offering classes across the state in September, providing offering practical tips for caregivers on topics such as effective communication strategies with someone who has Alzheimer’s, understanding and responding to dementia related behavior and the latest research on heading off Alzheimer’s.

Currier said her mother also has a good doctor in Williston whom they see every six months. The doctor runs tests of her mother’s cognitive ability.

“My big thing is to take it day by day and just know that whether it’s here or later, they’ll get their healing,” said Currier. “Love them even when they’re not able to express that love.”

Jamie Hammer, the director of nursing at Trinity Homes in Minot, said Alzheimer’s is a health problem that looms large on the horizon as Baby Boomers age. One statistic says that more than 28 million Baby Boomers will eventually develop Alzheimer’s and the disease will account for about 28 percent of Medicare spending.

At Trinity Homes there are 20 memory care beds and 12 transitional care beds for people living with Alzheimer’s. Both are in secure units and residents are closely monitored to keep them from wandering off.

Many people who require nursing care are in the later stages of the illness.

Early signs of a problem – like those noticed by Olson’s family – might include memory loss that disrupts daily life, finding it a challenge to plan ahead or solve problems, trouble understanding visual images and trouble with spatial ability. Hammer said families might notice that the loved one seems to bump into things a lot and experiences more falls. If they misplace something, they may have trouble retracing their steps and finding it again. Families might notice a change in the person’s mood or personality and the person may withdraw from work or social settings.

Medical care can help. Some medications like cholinesterase inhibitor might help delay or slow the worsening of symptoms, said Hammer. Memantine might help to improve memory and attention.

But there is no real cure.

People can interact with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s by engaging the five senses. For instance, a caregiver might show the patient an object he remembers from when he was younger and use it to discuss a memory. The smell or taste of an apple pie can bring back early memories. The comfort of a caring touch is also important.

Hammer said communication with an Alzheimer’s patient means using simple words and phrases. Caregivers and family members should always speak to the Alzheimer’s patient in a respectful manner and should treat them as the age that they are.

Volunteers as well as family members spend hours reading to residents in the Alzheimer’s unit or engaging with them in other ways. Hammer said the nursing home has a garden where Alzheimer’s patients might work. They also go to different outings, such as taking trips to the zoo.

Hammer said research suggests that eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep and exercise and engaging with friends and family are possible ways to reduce the chance of getting Alzheimer’s. Others work with memory puzzles or other activities that help keep the mind sharp.