A Caregiver’s Guide to Dementia
~ By Dr. Jules Rosen, Mind Springs Health Chief Medical Officer ~
As a geriatric psychiatrist, I find that people often have a difficult time talking about mental health and aging even here in Western Colorado, where we have one of the fastest growing populations of seniors in the nation. Although our older population tends to age in a healthy way, likely due to the opportunities we have for an active lifestyle, we’re still not immune from geriatric syndromes, such as dementia, that come with age.
The greatest risk factor for dementia is, in fact, age. After age 60 the prevalence of dementia doubles by 50 percent every five years. As more of our population ages we will see an even higher incidence of dementia, yet family members often feel pressured to keep quiet about the impact it has on their lives as caregivers, as well as on the lives of their loved ones.
Dementia encompasses a variety of symptoms related to decreased mental functioning, such as memory loss or impaired reasoning, that impact a person’s ability to carry out regular life activities. A decline in memory and other cognitive functions occurs normally as people age, but when that decline significantly interferes with daily life, dementia is often the culprit. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause, responsible for 75% of dementia in older adults.
For the many people who find themselves in the role of caregivers, it’s important to start the conversation about dementia with medical professionals, family members, and those who can offer informed support. While these conversations may be difficult to initiate, they’re essential for the well-being of both the person with dementia and the caregivers. Here are some ideas on how to find and establish ongoing systems of support.
Get a Proper Diagnosis
The signs of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, often begin slowly and insidiously, progressing gradually over time. But as soon as it’s recognized that dementia is interfering with a person’s daily routine, it’s essential to see a medical professional to determine how best to proceed. Geriatric-focused specialists, neurologists and psychiatrists are good choices for expert diagnosis and advice. A proper diagnosis helps caregivers plan for the future and also prepares them mentally for what to expect next.
Develop a Support System
While current friends and family members make up an important part of a caregiver’s support system, it’s also important to seek out informed support communities that include peers who are caring for those with dementia. The increasing availability of online tools makes it easier than ever for caregivers to connect with informed support communities across the miles. The Alzheimer’s Association organizes peer- or professionally-led support groups through their website, www.alz.org, while also offering a resource section specifically for caregivers.
Discuss Advance Directives
While having a conversation about end-of-life care may be one of the most difficult things to do, it’s ideal to broach this subject early with those whose symptoms of dementia will continue to worsen over time. Also known as living wills or personal directives, advance directives are the legal documents that allow people to express their personal wishes for treatment and care. Understanding palliative care options as well as local resources should also be a part of this conversation.
Safeguard Personal Health
Caregivers of those with dementia have another very important person to care forÑthemselves. It’s important to keep up exercise routines, healthy eating habits, and a personal social life. Others might not understand that caring for a person with dementia could be the toughest job a person will ever have. For this reason, caregivers must be vigilant about self-care so that they can truly offer the support another person needs.
Seek Treatment for Extra Support
Between 30 and 40 percent of caregivers develop depression, and while its source may seem obvious, treatment is often avoided. Just as caregivers need to protect their personal physical health, they also need to take care of their mental health by seeking out out professional treatment, including counseling, during challenging times.
Being proactive in these areas can help dementia caregivers establish the connections they need to develop ongoing care plans for others without sacrificing personal health in the process.
About Dr. Rosen:
Jules Rosen MD specializes in geriatric psychiatry and is the Chief Medical Officer for Mind Springs Health. With 13 outpatient locations as well as West Springs Hospital in Grand Junction, Mind Springs Health offers compassionate, trauma-informed care to those seeking mental health and addiction treatment. Dr. Rosen can be reached at 970.683.7062.