If you’re a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s, here are some recommendations

The ravages of Alzheimer's disease — memory loss, mood swings, depression and poor judgment, to name just a few — not only affect the 5.4 million Americans with Alzheimer's but also the 15 million-plus unpaid men and women who care for them. Symptoms of the disease can manifest themselves differently in each patient, but ultimately most people living with Alzheimer's will end up unable to function independently. They will have to rely on spouses, siblings, children, friends, neighbors or paid professionals for help.

If you're a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer's, here are some recommendations:

The power of engagement

Mental and social stimulation are key for someone dealing with an Alzheimer's diagnosis. Experts have known for a while that remaining engaged in hobbies or social activities can fend off feelings of isolation and depression, both of which can further the disease's progression.

For caregivers, this means two things. First, it's vital that a loved one's engagement in hobbies, social events, projects or community activities does not wane once he or she is diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's or any type of dementia. Second, if a loved one becomes withdrawn or starts to spend less time interacting in ways than he or she used to, it may be a sign of a larger problem.

Resistance training can improve cognition

Exercise is one of the more promising things people at risk of developing dementia, or who have been diagnosed with it, can do to affect their cognition.

An "exercise program" can sound daunting, but even daily walks can help. It's as much about the physical benefit of exercise as it is about the structure it provides.

The longer that patients can maintain that ability (to do things for themselves), the better for them, their self-esteem and their caregivers."

Alcohol and dementia don't mix

How alcohol affects the cognition of a person with dementia isn't completely understood, but four new studies presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference shed a little more light on their relationship.

One study looked at binge drinking (defined as four or more drinks on one occasion) and followed more than 5,000 people ages 65 and older for eight years.

Dr. Iain Lang of Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom led the study. He and his team found that participants "who reported (binge drinking) once a month were 62% more likely to experience the greatest declines in cognitive function and were 27% more likely to be in the group experiencing the highest amount of memory decline."

Binge drinking twice a month more than doubles cognitive function decline (147%), and memory decline could increase more than fivefold (149%), according to Lang's study.

Those are alarming numbers since patients with moderate or severe dementia can forget how many drinks they've consumed in a sitting, leading them to binge drink without realizing it.

If you're caring for patients in that position, how do you stop them from drinking too much? Since each one is different, Kallmyer said instead of stopping the patient, caregivers need to reframe this question by thinking, "What can I do to keep this person safe?" For example, ensure the person doesn't wander off or can safely navigate a staircase, or don't let him or her drive.

For patients asking for a glass of alcohol, Kallmyer recommends some distractions to keep them engaged so they forget about the drink for which they're asking. When it comes to medication, she said caregivers should learn about the disease so they can anticipate those situations and eventually take over the job of distributing pills.

Caregivers also need to think about how drugs will interact with alcohol: "Talk to his doctors — what medications is he on? Can alcohol get in the way? You don't want him intoxicated; he's already impaired."

Kallmyer said one of the first steps to take when someone you love has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's or another type of dementia is "to get educated about the disease. The more people can plan ahead of time, learn ahead of time, the better you can handle situations later."

To help you plan ahead, you can check out a tool from the Alzheimer's Association called the Alzheimer's Navigator.

Caregivers must care for themselves, too

According to the Alzheimer's Association, 15.2 million Americans provide nearly 22 hours of unpaid care per person per week. That's the equivalent of a part-time job.

Sixty-one percent of caregivers say the emotional stress of the job is "high to very high," while 43% say the same about the physical stress.

You may not be getting enough sleep, not eating right, or not getting enough exercise. It's easy for people to lose touch with their social networks or to lose interest in old hobbies when they're juggling so much. That can lead to isolation, which can be just as dangerous for caregivers as it is for the people for whom they're caring.

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