How to Recognize the Symptoms of Alzheimer's
Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease. In fact, I’m convinced that it’s just about the worst fate that can befall a human being. Not only is Alzheimers disease tragic for the person who suffers from it – it’s also devastating to the family and friends of the patient. Alzheimer’s disease can completely change the patient’s personality into someone you don’t know, and it can be utterly terrifying for the person affected. When my mother's disease was in the early stages, she understood what was happening to her, and she was scared beyond belief. As a retired nurse with decades of work experience, and as the caretaker for my grandmother, who also suffered from Alzheimers disease, mom knew her fate all too well.
My grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s, and so did my mother. For several years, I was Mom’s caretaker, so I saw firsthand the symptoms that ravaged her mind. I was there for the entire time, from the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s through her progression of the disease, until her death.
Mom began exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s at around the age of 80. At first, the Alzheimer’s symptoms were mild. As a result, my family and I were somewhat in denial at first. We tried to convince ourselves that it was just a normal part of aging. Also, my father had just attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest with his pistol. He lasted three weeks on life support before he died. Of course, this took a huge toll on Mom. They had been married for 60 years, so it was easy for us to blame some of Mom’s problems on grief and shock. The rest of the family was in extreme grief and shock, too, so I suppose these things clouded our perception in relation to Mom's Alzheimers symptoms.
My husband and I moved in with Mom once we realized that her behavior was not normal. We finally had to acknowledge that she was exhibiting Alzheimer’s symptoms. After a couple of years, we had to move Mom into an assisted living facility. We could no longer leave her alone while we went to work. She lived in the facility for two years but ultimately had to be moved into a lock-down unit because her Alzheimer’s symptoms had escalated. Before being placed in the lock-down unit, Mom had begun to wander off in her attempt to "escape" the assisted living facility.
Below are the symptoms of Alzheimer's we noticed with both my grandmother and my mom.
Short Term Memory Loss
One of the first Alzheimer’s symptoms we noticed was short term memory loss. In other words, Mom would forget the names of people she’d just met or information she had recently learned. She’d forget that she was cooking something on the stove, and she’d forget that she was running a bath. This was easy for us to dismiss as a normal part of aging. At the time, I was in my late forties, and I forgot things sometimes, too, so we were not alarmed at this point. Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between the short term memory loss of senile dementia or aging-related memory loss and Alzheimers disease.
Long Term Memory Loss
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s also include long term memory loss. This type of memory loss was more troubling for us. I’ll give you an example. My mother always made great homemade biscuits from scratch. She’d been making the same biscuits for over 65 years, so she didn’t need a recipe. She could practically make the biscuits in her sleep. When it got to the point that she could no longer make her famous biscuits, I knew something was very wrong. She would also forget how to do simple tasks like washing her hands. Actually, she could remember how to wash her hands, but sometimes she couldn't remember to turn off the water after she was done. She flooded the bathroom on several occasions.
Near the end of Mom’s struggle, she could no longer remember much of anything. I remember her trying to remember my father, and she couldn’t. According to her, she could not recall a single thing about their life together. Memory loss is one of the saddest elements of the disease.
Another of the Alzheimer’s symptoms we noticed was trouble with problem solving. The simplest problems became huge for Mom, as she had no idea as to how to remedy them. For example, if the batteries in the TV remote died, she couldn’t figure out that the device needed new batteries, and when she was told to replace the old batteries with new ones, she couldn’t figure out how to do so, even though she’d done it many, many times before. Problem solving can be seen in even simpler tasks, too. Just deciding what to wear can be difficult. For example, if I were taking Mom on an outing on a cold day, she often had trouble figuring out which clothes were warm. On the other hand, she might decide to wear a heavy coat on a hot summer day when we were going out.
Mom was always big on planning ahead, but as the Alzheimers advanced, she could no longer do this. This is one of the classic symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Before I moved in with mom, my youngest daughter often did the grocery shopping for Mom. She’d make a list, and my daughter would go to the store and purchase the items. It got to where my mother would have trouble deciding what she’d need for the next week.
Mom had always enjoyed planning for family get-togethers, holidays, and parties. She had always been a wonderful hostess, planning down to the tiniest details. With Alzheimer’s disease, she just couldn’t wrap her mind around the concept of planning.
Alzheimer’s symptoms also include trouble completing tasks. It became problematic for Mom to complete simple daily tasks. She’d get started with something, then quit before it was completed. Sometimes she’d stop because she felt overwhelmed or frustrated, and sometimes she’d lose track of what she was doing and abandon it. We saw this with routine daily chores like doing laundry, dusting, and even watching a TV show or movie. Paying her own bills was one of the first things to go as her disease took hold. The task was too overwhelming for her.
Common Alzheimer’s symptoms include losing things. I’m not talking about misplacing your car keys once in a while – we all do that. I’m talking about losing several items frequently. Sometimes she couldn’t remember where she kept her winter clothes, for example. Later, she didn’t realize that she kept her undergarments in her chest of drawers. She might have trouble remembering where the bathroom was in her own home or in her own room at the facility. Of course, this started with Mom’s misplacing things once in a while, but it escalated over time, as Alzheimers tends to do.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s includes trouble concentrating. Early on, Mom had difficulty balancing her checkbook. She just couldn’t concentrate long enough. For decades, she had sat down at the kitchen table on the first of every month and paid her bills. She was no longer able to do this. Her concentration and attention span were just not long enough. If she wrote a check, she couldn't concentrate long enough to subtract the amount of the check from the balance in her checking account. Of course, problem solving was also an aspect here, and simple adding and subtracting became too difficult for her to do.
Loss of Time
Another of the Alzheimer’s symptoms might be losing time. In other words, the patient might not be aware of time. Mom began with not knowing what day of the week it was. Later, she had no idea as to which season of the year it was, and ultimately, she had no idea as to which year or even which decade it was. Time meant nothing to her. I went to see her almost every day, yet when I arrived, most of the time she'd comment that she hadn't seen me in ages.
Loss of Place
Loss of place is another of the common symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Mom got to the point that she had no idea where she was. She’d often ask, “Where am I?” when she was in the assisted living facility. Later, even very familiar places became strange to her. When we’d bring her home to the house she’d lived in for more than forty years, she might say something like, “This house looks familiar. I think I’ve been here before. Have I?” In her last year, she no longer recognized her home at all.
Loss of Vocabulary
Alzheimer’s symptoms also include a loss of vocabulary. My mom was very intelligent and had a large vocabulary, but over time, she “lost” words. Even in casual conversation, she would often be unable to find the right word to use. I remember once she couldn’t remember the word “bedspread.” She wanted a new one, but she had trouble conveying it. Finally she told me she needed “one of those things you put on the bed.” She had the same problem with “bedroom shoes” and “pajamas.” For her, they became “those shoes you wear at night” and “those clothes you sleep in.”
Lack of Judgment
One of the most troubling symptoms of Alzheimer’s is a lack in judgment. Fairly early in her battle with Alzheimers, Mom exhibited this. She would buy expensive gifts for people she didn’t know. She once bought a set of china for a checkout girl at Kmart when the employee mentioned that she was getting married. She bought me an expensive string of pearls, and I rarely wear jewelry. Anyway, I already had some pearls and didn’t need or want more. I made her return them, but in a few days, she bought me another set. She was also supporting numerous charities. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, and she had always donated to her church and to two other charities, but it got to the point that any charity that called Mom could be sure of a generous donation. She really couldn’t afford all these charitable donations, but she lacked the judgment to realize it.
Along with other Alzheimer’s symptoms, Mom experienced trouble with her vision. She could see, but she often had trouble with colors and space. It became difficult for her to tell how far away things were and how large or small items were. It sometimes took her a while to “focus” on something, too, because of blurred vision. Sometimes she couldn’t distinguish orange from red, or blue from green. I’m not sure, however, if this was a true vision problem or whether it had more to do with judgment. It could have even been a problem with vocabulary.
Severe Mood Swings
About midway in her disease, Mom experienced other symptoms of Alzheimer’s. One of the worst was severe mood swings. She had always been a very happy, easy-going person. With Alzheimers, however, she began to have wild mood swings. One minute she’d be happy, and the next minute she might be crying. She could also go from smiling to being very angry in the blink of an eye and often for no reason, or for imagined reasons. Anything could set her off, so there was no way for us to prepare ourselves. This was one of the hardest things for the family to witness. The severe mood swings Mom experienced were alarming and could even be terrifying to watch.
One of the most devastating of the Alzheimer’s symptoms is a drastic change in personality. Fortunately, we didn’t see a lot of this with Mom. We did see some, however. Mom was a sweet, caring individual who rarely got angry. With Alzheimers, however, she sometimes went into rages. She uttered curse words I didn’t even know were in her vocabulary. She was often paranoid, thinking the nurses, the cleaning staff, and even family members and friends were stealing from her.
Near the end, she became very withdrawn, too. This was totally out of character for Mom. She had always been a gregarious person who absolutely loved interacting with other people. She got to the point where she stayed mostly to herself in her room.
Sundowners – Alzheimer’s Sundowning
Alzheimer’s symptoms also often includes sundowners syndrome. There might be a more scientific term for this condition, but this is what Mom’s doctors and caregivers called it. Many individuals with Alzheimer’s sundowning will get nervous, fearful, and angry in the evening. They might have been fine all day, but when the sun starts to go down, their Alzheimer symptoms escalate. They often become unmanageable.
Sundowners was a huge problem for Mom. When she was still able to use a telephone, she’d begin calling me every night at dusk. She’d continue phoning me until she finally went to sleep, usually every few minutes. These sundowners calls could be described as desperate, demanding, terrified, or full of rage. She might also be sad and crying. Sometimes a single conversation would include all of these emotions.
One of the saddest of Alzheimer’s symptoms for close family members is the loss of recognition. Mom began by not being able to recognize close friends, but it later spread to family members. She almost always remembered me, but she couldn’t always figure out who I was. Sometimes she’d think I was her mother instead of her daughter. Sometimes I’d ask her if she knew who I was, and she’d often respond, “I can’t remember your name right now, but I know you’re someone I love.”
Sometimes she didn’t even recognize the attendants who helped take care of her every day. of course, this was scary for Mom, as she thought total strangers were in her room, “doing things” to her and handling her belongings.
At this point, we didn’t have a lot of options. We had a couple of nursing homes in our town, but Mom had always hated the idea of going to one of them. Also, she didn’t really know anyone in the nursing homes. Luckily, we also had an assisted living facility that had just opened a new Alzheimer’s unit. It was more expensive than nursing homes would have been because it wouldn’t allow Mom to be placed on Medicaid. Her retirement check didn’t quite cover the monthly fee, so my brother and I made up the rest.
If you’re considering nursing homes as an option, please be sure to check out the facilities well before deciding on one. Some nursing homes are wonderful, while others might be deplorable. My daughter, a nurse, has told me some terrible things that went on in two nursing homes where she worked. She tried to make changes while she was there, but she finally quit her job in frustration.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Alzheimers. There are, however, drugs that can slow the progression of the disease and help diminish some of the symptoms. Therefore, it’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms of Alzheimer’s as early as possible. Alzheimer’s treatment options are usually aimed at managing the disease and its symptoms.
Mom’s Alzheimer’s treatment included a drug called Aricept. Aricept helps retain a brain chemical, acetylcholine, which is partially responsible for brain activities like memory. Unfortunately, Aricept doesn’t work on all patients, and even when it does, it usually is effective for only a few months.
Sometimes another drug, Namenda, is used along with Aricept as an Alzheimer’s treatment. Namenda helps to manage levels of glutamate, another chemical in the brain that’s associated with cognitive abilities like remembering and learning.
Other Alzheimer’s treatment options focus on some specific side effects of the disease, including depression, irritability, paranoia, and anxiety. For these, drugs like Paxil, Zoloft, Haldol, BuSpar, or Xanax might be prescribed.
A non-drug Alzheimer’s treatment has recently become popular. It’s called sensory therapy, and it involves using prompts to stimulate the five senses. For example, art might be used to stimulate sight, music might be used to stimulate hearing, aromas might be used to stimulate the sense of smell, and foods can be used to stimulate the sense of taste. For the sense of touch, different textures and shapes are used.
I can’t stress how important caregivers support is! I was Mom’s main caregiver for a couple of years, and it’s the most demanding job I’ve ever had. People with normally functioning brains use logic, so I often tried to be logical in dealing with Mom. That doesn’t work with Alzheimers patients because they don’t think logically. Advice on caregivers support will help you learn to manage your loved one.
Support for caregivers can also be found from friends and family members. I strongly advise you to get all the help and support you can get – you’ll need it. Caregivers support might include someone to relieve you so that you can take a much-needed break. Sometimes the best support for caregivers is just having someone to confide in and talk to about your experiences. A strong shoulder to cry on is also often beneficial. It might also help to talk with someone who has gone through the same experiences.
Alzheimers Support Alzheimer’s Foundation – Alzheimer’s Association
If you have a loved one who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimers or is experiencing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, get help. There are several Alzheimer’s organizations that can assist you. One of the best is the Alzheimer’s Foundation.
I often visited the Alzheimer’s Foundation site when I felt lost, afraid, frustrated, or angry. You’ll find a wealth of information there, and you’ll quickly realize that you’re not alone. With the Alzheimer’s Foundation, you’ll get all kinds of support, including tips for caregivers and strategies for dealing with someone suffering from Alzheimers. To visit the Alzheimer’s Foundation, click here: http://www.alzfdn.org/
Another valuable Alzheimer’s site is the Alzheimer’s Association. Their website is http://www.alz.org/index.asp. The Alzheimer’s Association provides information for caregivers, healthcare professionals, and for patients themselves. Included is advice about Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security Disability, and other financial matters. There are also tips about finding nursing homes and other facilities for Alzheimer’s patients.
The Final Chapter
When Mom reached the end of her battle with Alzheimers, she had experienced most of the classic Alzheimer’s symptoms. My grandmother had done the same thing. In her last weeks, my mother was completely isolated and withdrawn. We tried to get her out of her room, but she didn’t want to leave the familiar security, I guess. She would often just lie on her bed and stare at the wall. She didn’t have any desire to watch television, and her face no longer lit up when she saw me. Mom died at the age of eighty-eight. The mother I knew and loved, however, had left us years earlier.
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