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World Alzheimer’s Month: Knowing the signs and symptoms and living with the condition

There are lots of causes of dementia, and many different types too. You may often hear the terms Alzheimer’s and dementia and understand that they are both related to memory loss, but it can be confusing to understand their differences, what each of them mean and how they are both related. ‘Alzheimer’s’ is a type of dementia, and along with ‘vascular dementia’ makes up the majority of dementia cases.

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative condition, meaning it will get worse over time. It occurs when an individual’s brain cells begin to die and overtime, the brain will function less and symptoms will worsen. Alzheimer’s causes a gradual decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills. The severity of these symptoms depend on the stage of the disease.

The early signs of Alzheimer’s

At the start, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s can be fairly mild and may even be confused with natural symptoms of ‘getting older’. Although everyone’s experience may differ slightly, for the majority of people, the first signs of Alzheimer’s is memory loss; finding it difficult to remember recent events and conversations, easily misplacing items such as keys and glasses or forgetting about important appointments and significant dates like birthdays.

A person in the early stages of Alzheimer’s may also have changes in their mood, becoming anxious or depressed and often frustrated and more easily annoyed. These symptoms can be particularly difficult for the individual and for close family and friends too.

What to expect as Alzheimer’s advances

As Alzheimer’s worsens, the symptoms become more severe and a person suffering with Alzheimer’s will eventually need day-to-day support. Some individuals start to have delusions and believe events have occurred that are not true. Changes in behaviour may also occur and they may also start to react aggressively to certain situations, become more agitated and behave differently to how they would’ve previously behaved.

As Alzheimer’s progresses into the later stages, the person will become much less aware and may struggle with their basic needs such as eating, walking and bathing, requiring help with more or all of their daily activities.

What to do if you think a loved one has dementia or Alzheimer’s?

If you think a loved one is experiencing the early signs of dementia, although it is a difficult topic to bring up and you may be afraid of upsetting or worrying them, it’s important to encourage them to speak to their GP.

Memory loss doesn’t always mean dementia and can be linked to stress, anxiety and a natural part of getting older. However, it is important to ask your loved one to speak to a GP to get diagnosed with the cause properly. If dementia is the cause of memory loss and is found early, in some cases, the progression can be slowed down with medication and the person may be able to maintain their mental function for longer.

What happens when you seek a dementia diagnosis?

Initially, a GP will ask more about the symptoms and how they have developed. They may also do a memory test and physical examination. Blood tests may be carried out to rule out any other conditions.

Once or if any other causes are ruled out, your GP will refer your loved one to a memory clinic, or other specialist service, where more observations and assessments are carried out to confirm the diagnoses.

How to support a loved one with Alzheimer’s

As well as living with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, the condition can also have a significant emotional, social, psychological and practical impact on a person’s life, with a loss of independence, skills, self-esteem and confidence combined with worries about what the future will look like.

When supporting a loved one with dementia, it can be helpful for you to try and understand how they might think and feel, as these emotions will also affect how they behave. They will probably be experiencing a world that is very different to yours, so trying to see things from their perspective will help you offer support.

As a carer, family member or friend, you cannot help to slow down the symptoms of Alzheimer’s but by practicing the following, it can help you both manage living with the condition:

  • Keep things nice and simple, asking or saying one thing at a time so conversions or events are easy to follow.
  • Try and have a daily routine, so your loved one can expect when certain things will happen. This gives a structure to the day or week that doesn’t rely on the person’s memory.
  • Reassure them that he or she is safe and that you are there for them.
  • Focus on his or her feelings in the present moment and talk about how they may be feeling.
  • Don’t argue or try to reason with your loved one, their perception will likely be different to yours.
  • If the person repeats a question, it won’t help to tell them that they’ve already asked. Repeat your answers in a simple way.
  • Encourage your loved one to use a diary, journal or calendar to record events and conversations.
  • If the person is given an appointment card, put it where the person can easily see it. For example, you could pin it to a noticeboard.
  • Reduce distractions, such as background noise, to help the person focus on the task at hand.
  • Sometimes you may feel frustrated, angry or upset. Try and be patient with your loved one. If you feel like you need a break or some help, don’t be afraid to ask. There is lots of support available for both you and your loved one.

Getting help and support for you and your loved one in Merthyr Tydfil

Living with Alzheimer’s can be extremely difficult and at times upsetting for an individual, and equally for their carer too. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There is support available through the NHS, social services and charities such as The Alzheimer’s Society and Age UK too. Remember, you are not alone, and help is available if and when you need it.

How your GP Support Officer can help

You can contact your GP Support Officer (GPSO), by calling your GP practice and asking to speak to a GPSO. They act as a link between health and social services and have links with Alzheimer’s society too.

Help through social services

Social services can help with things like:

  • Providing carers to help with washing and dressing
  • Laundry services
  • Meals on wheels
  • Aids and adaptations
  • Access to day centres.

Social services can also give you information about local services and support, much of which is provided by charities, such as Alzheimer’s Society and Age UK.

If your loved one is a ‘new’ patient and is yet to have help from adult social services, you can contact 01685 725000 and ask for the “Adult Duty Desk.”

If they are already known to the Older Person’s Mental Health Team at social services or they have an allocated Social Worker, then you can call 01685 351122.

The dementia day service at Kier Hardie Health Park

The dementia day service at Kier Hardie Health Park provides a range of activities including baking, arts and crafts, reminiscence, board games and quizzes to name a few, to keep people engaged and functioning to the optimum. To find out more, contact the Adult Duty Team for Day Service on 01685 725000.

What you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia

Research suggests that lifestyle factors and conditions associated with cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease, can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and are also directly linked to vascular dementia.

These lifestyle factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • And high cholesterol

To help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, you can:

  • If you smoke, stop smoking
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet to prevent diabetes
  • Lead an active life, both physically and mentally
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Limit your alcohol intake
  • Have regular health checks as you get older

And, if you are already diabetic, then working hard to reduce your blood sugars through regular exercise is important. You can do this by eating lots of fibre-rich foods like nuts, fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, reducing carbohydrates as carbs eventually break down into sugars, drinking plenty of water and implementing portion control.

For more information about dementia and Alzheimer’s visit, the NHS website or The Alzheimer’s Society or call The Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456.