I first had direct experience of Alzheimer’s as a teenager when my grandmother began to exhibit signs of dementia. It was devastating to see this once vibrant and intelligent woman, slowly begin to lose her thought processes and memory as she went through the different stages of the disease. In an effort to give her the best quality of life possible, I became her primary caregiver until she passed.
Since then, I have developed an interest in learning about dementia and I make sure my staff know how to care for persons with this mental disease as it is not easy. It is hard on everyone: grandchildren, daughters, sons, family members and friends of the person with dementia.
The Senior Consultant at the Barbados Psychiatric Hospital Dr Brian MacLachlan defines Alzheimer’s disease as a form of dementia that occurs because of the disease processing that affects the brain, stating: “Dementia [represents] a series of neuro-cognitive diseases. Neuro refers to the nerves of the brain and cognitive refers to our ability to think and to reason and also involves memory and conditions [of] orientation – knowing where you are, who you are, what type of day it is.”
He further explained that because the Barbados population is living longer, conditions such as Alzheimer’s are presenting more among our ageing population. When asked if Caribbean people are pre-disposed to Alzheimer’s due to the high rate of diabetes, sugar consumption and in some instances high consumption of alcohol, Dr MacLachlan concluded “yes, and if they are being treated sometimes partially and taking medications, then the effects are that over time, as people are living longer and getting older, that [increases] the risk factor”.
Two types of Alzheimer’s
Vascular Dementia and Multi-infarct are caused by disruption of blood flow to the brain. For example, high blood pressure can cause blockages to the blood vessels which can affect the blood flow to the brain.
“In diabetes, you actually get an effect on those blood vessels as well and direct effects of sugar, along with deposits of protein into the brain which all affect the cells in the brain that cause Alzheimer’s,” he explained.
Ultimately, the end result is that the “brain is either not getting enough nutrients or the way that messages are sent around are being affected”. Worth noting is that persons who drink alcohol over a long period of time can also damage the brain and “this can be another form of dementia”, warns Dr MacLachlan.
However, it is not just the ageing population that can be affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s as people in their 40s and 50s can also begin to develop signs of the disease. Once you start seeing a set of symptoms in the shorter memory and the progression, then it can indicate Alzheimer’s.
My advice is for all of us to eat a balanced and healthy diet and to exercise the body and mind. Often, we think that by working we are doing just that. In reality, work can be a stressor and can cause us to develop unhealthy habits, like not getting enough sleep and eating lots of processed and “fast foods”. So, we really need to develop healthy lifestyles as part of managing our mental health.
Caregivers of persons with Alzheimer’s need to be sensitive and understand the importance of good nutrition and exercise as part of the holistic care needed to manage this condition. Most importantly, they and the affected families must develop a deeper understanding of the causes of the disease. They should also have a nursing background which would have included some study into conditions like dementia.
Early signs of dementia:
Forgetfulness – They start to forget important events/dates, recent information and keep asking for the same information to be repeated. The person may also forget how to do simple tasks and more complex ones such as driving or using the computer.
Changes in mood and behaviour – Personality may change from being peaceful to more aggressive without any provocation.
Changes in daily activities – Dementia may cause a person to lose interest in previously enjoyed activities or require cues prompting them to become involved.
Memory problems – They are now regularly forgetting recent events, names and faces.
They begin to ask questions repetitively.
They find it increasingly difficult to carry out tasks and activities that require organization and planning.
They are becoming more confused in unfamiliar environments.
When having a conversation, they have difficulty finding the right words to express themselves.
Numbers and/or handling money becomes a challenge.
Your loved one is becoming more withdrawn or anxious.
What to do if a loved is showing signs of dementia:
Do not ignore it even if the symptoms are mild as they may over time progress and get worse. See your doctor who will do some initial tests. Your doctor will then refer your loved one to a neurologist for a more indepth assessment if required. It may be that they have “mild cognitive impairment”, but the neurologist will be able to monitor if it is progressing to dementia. The neurologist is a medical doctor specially trained in treating brain and spinal conditions and is the best person to provide a diagnosis and help.
Alzheimer’s is not an easy condition to live with and at first, well-meaning family, friends and even the person themselves, may try to laugh it off or say it’s a natural part of ageing. However, it is not, so always seek medical help. After diagnosis and with a good care plan that includes a lot of compassion and love, along with healthy lifestyle changes, they can still have a very good quality of life. Something that we at trusted care providers know all about.
by Kimberley Sandiford,
owner of Trusted Care Providers