June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, which serves as an excellent reminder to educate ourselves on this gradually progressing condition, including the symptoms and coping resources.
In many ways, your memory shapes who you are. It makes up the stories you tell about yourself and what you’ve done with your life. Losing these memories, and experiencing the beginning stages of dementia, can be overwhelming. However, there are many ways to cope. The first step is learning more.
Rather than a disease, dementia is a general term used to describe a collection of symptoms, including memory loss, personality changes and impaired reasoning. Generally, at least two symptoms must be present for a dementia diagnosis. Often people think of these symptoms as normal signs of aging, but they are not. In fact, symptoms can be so severe that they affect daily living, personal safety and how the individual relates to others.
Alzheimer’s is one form of dementia and, perhaps, the one that most people recognize. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common, affecting more than 5 million Americans age 65 and older, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Often, the exact cause is unknown, although family history and age are often considered factors that increase your risk.
Common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:
- Memory loss that affects daily living
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks
- Problems with language
- Disorientation of time and place
- Poor or impaired judgment
- Problems with abstract thinking
- Changes in mood, behavior or personality
- Loss of initiative
Coping with Dementia
If you’ve been recently diagnosed with dementia, it’s normal to feel everything from fear and frustration to loneliness and depression. But there are several strategies for managing this condition in its early stages, including:
Stay connected. It’s normal to feel alone after your diagnosis, but isolation can make you feel worse. Reach out and stay connected to your loved ones and consider joining a support group to meet other people and learn more about the condition.
Take care of your physical well-being. This means eating healthy, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep. Eating a well-balanced diet rich in complex carbohydrates (whole grains, beans, fruits and veggies) and omega 3 fatty acids (salmon, mackerel, canola oil and walnuts) do your body and brain good. They can help combat feelings of stress and frustration.
Exercise also does your body good. Just 20 minutes of heart-pumping activity can decrease stress hormones and increase endorphins, which are often referred to as the body’s “feel-good chemicals.” Exercise classes like Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi can help you find balance.
Finally, getting enough sleep each night can help you cope with difficult emotions that often accompany a dementia diagnosis. Quality rest can also help you recover from daily stresses, leaving you feeling more energized in the morning.
Take care of your mental well-being. Your mental well-being is just as important as your physical well-being. Managing your stress can help put your mind at ease and give you the tools you need to manage your diagnosis. Consider taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction class.
Develop a daily routine. Although variety and stimulation are important, too much change at once can be confusing if you have dementia. Setting up a regular routine can help you feel more secure, and it can make it easier for you to remember what usually happens throughout the day. A routine can also help you keep track of time. You might find that your sense of time is “off,” and you can’t remember what you’ve done or still need to do. You might also find it hard to judge how much time has passed or to anticipate what will happen next. A daily routine can help you with this difficulty.
Create a dementia-friendly environment. This can include organizing your belongings in a way that makes finding items you use daily easy. Try keeping things in the same place, or put labels on drawers and doors.
Keep a journal. Writing down your thoughts, feelings and emotions can help reduce stress and improve your health and well-being.
Maintain your favorite activities and hobbies. Continuing to participate in your favorite activities and hobbies can help you maintain your independence. It can also help you feel valued because it relates to past roles and experiences like raising children or helping around the house. Keeping up with your activities and hobbies can also promote a sense of belonging.
When Your Loved One has dementia
Caring for a loved one who has dementia can impact every aspect of your life. It can leave you feeling fearful, lonely or frustrated. But your care can make the biggest difference to your loved one’s quality of life. Just remember that you cannot help someone else without taking care of yourself first.
Here are some things you can try:
Make own health a priority. Just as your loved one should eat healthy, exercise regularly and get enough rest – so should you. Research shows that dementia caregivers often feel run down, exhausted or socially isolated, putting them at an increased risk for depression and illness. So, practicing healthy habits is even more important for you. Shoot for 20 minutes of heart-pumping exercise each day, and eight hours of quality sleep each night.
Reach out to trusted friends and family members. As a caregiver, you may feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed. It’s normal to feel this way, so give yourself permission to be vulnerable. Reach out to trusted family members for encouragement, support and help.
Learn as much as you can about dementia. Knowing what to expect can help you become better prepared to handle the changes and challenges ahead.
Join a support group. You’re not alone. In fact, about 15 million Americans provide care for others who have dementia. By joining a support group, you can learn from the experiences of others and connect with people experiencing the same thing, which reduces feelings of fear and isolation.
Learn to manage your stress. Try deep breathing, journaling, exercising or simply enjoying the sunshine outdoors. You can also participate in a mindfulness-based stress reduction class.
Ask for help. It’s important to reach out to friends, family members and volunteer organizations. Accepting help for routine chores like grocery shopping or cleaning can enable you to spend more time with, and caring for, your loved one.
“Although dealing with dementia for yourself or a loved one can feel overwhelming, medical care is advancing. There is a wide variety of supportive programs available, including inpatient programs like Parkview BridgeWays or short-term, community-based programs such as Parkview’s LifeBridge Senior Program,” said Kevin Murphy, MD, medical director, Parkview Behavioral Health. “Seeking expert care as well as community support can help both the patient and family navigate the journey.”
For help and support, call the Parkview Behavioral Health Help Line at (260) 373-7500 or (800) 284-8439, anytime 24 hours a day. Our dedicated assessment specialists are available to guide you to the appropriate level of care for your situation.