June 15, 2023

Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s

General Health

Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s takes a lot of time and effort and can be emotional, stressful, and physically and financially demanding. If you’ve found out your loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, know what to expect, how to prepare, and how to manage caring for your loved one while still caring for yourself.

About Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia—a condition that affects the parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease accounts for an estimated 60% to 80% of all dementia cases.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive condition, which means it gets worse over time. The condition can begin before the first symptoms occur. Over time, the condition progresses until the person living with Alzheimer’s needs support with daily activities like dressing, eating, or bathing.

According to the National Institute on Aging, the most common type of Alzheimer’s—late onset—appears in people in their mid-60s or later. Some forgetfulness is normal as we age, but common signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s, like making poor decisions, having trouble recognizing friends or family, or losing track of what day or year it is are not a normal part of aging.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s is rarer, occurring in fewer than 10% of people with Alzheimer’s. It occurs in people between 30 and their mid-60s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is more likely to be genetic.

People with Alzheimer’s disease often have trouble remembering things. At first, it may be something as small as losing things but could progress to forgetting the date or day of the week or cause people to repeat a story or the same question many times. Later, as the condition gets worse, people may not recognize their loved ones.

Alzheimer’s disease has no cure, but there have been significant advances in treatments available, including several medications and coping strategies. Alzheimer’s is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S., and there are several clinical trials underway to discover ways to diagnose, treat, and even prevent Alzheimer’s.


At first, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease may be subtle. They may be dismissed as simple forgetfulness, but over time they get worse. Here are common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Often forgetting something you just learned
  • Trouble concentrating and resolving problems on your own
  • Trouble doing things you’ve always known how to do, like driving to familiar places or using simple electronics like the TV remote
  • Obvious confusion about dates, the time of day, and even the time of year
  • Problems recognizing colors or reading
  • Trouble with speech, words, and communicating with others
  • Losing items and not being able to remember where they are
  • Being careless with finances and personal hygiene, often showing poor judgment
  • Becoming more isolated and spending less time with family and friends
  • Having emotional outbursts or reacting inappropriately in some situations
  • May lead to hallucinations or delusions, including paranoid ideation


Dementia and memory loss remains a clinical diagnosis. A healthcare provider may ask about symptoms and begin an evaluation by doing a few tests. These tests can include:

  • Health history and review of all current medications
  • Review of any family history of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Mental status test, which uses standard questions to test a person’s awareness, such as the date and time and simple directions or lists of objects (sometimes more detailed neuropsychological testing is done)
  • Physical exam, including a neurological exam, to look for other causes of symptoms

A memory specialist may also choose to complete:

  • MRI scan of the brain
  • PET scan (with a new tracer agent)
  • Tests of other family members. In rare cases, Alzheimer’s disease is genetic.

Researchers continue to look for ways to find Alzheimer’s disease early, but symptoms can often be attributed to other causes, such as stroke, tumors, Parkinson’s disease, side effects of medication, or other forms of dementia. Once diagnosed, beginning treatment immediately can help slow the condition’s progression and ensure families can plan better for the future.


No medications can completely cure Alzheimer’s, but several are available that may slow its progress and make it easier to manage symptoms. Two types of medications that affect chemicals in the brain related to memory and testing are memantine, an N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) antagonist, and donepezil, a cholinesterase inhibitor. Because these medications affect the brain differently, they are sometimes prescribed in combination.

Because symptoms can include behavioral symptoms—including anxiety, aggression, and depression—medications, therapies, and coping strategies can help reduce the impact Alzheimer’s has on a person’s life.

Caring for Your Loved One

When you’re a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, you can help your loved one stay as emotionally and physically healthy as possible. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a person with Alzheimer’s disease needs to:

  • Learn how to manage and understand their diagnosis
  • Cope with fear and frustration as symptoms get worse
  • Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Take all medications prescribed by the healthcare provider

In addition to helping your loved one manage their illness, you can assist them in activities that they may have difficulty with or are unable to do, such as:

  • Grocery shopping and cooking
  • Bathing and getting dressed
  • Paying bills, picking up prescriptions, and driving to healthcare provider’s appointments

When a person receives a diagnosis, it’s also important to start planning for the future. You can help your loved one plan for long-term care, such as a nursing home or special memory care unit. You can look into support networks or research assistive care options. It’s important to take care of legal and financial matters, like advance health care directives, before Alzheimer’s can impair your loved one’s ability to think clearly or make decisions.

Caring for Yourself

Caring for yourself is no less important. Supporting a loved one with Alzheimer’s can be physically and mentally demanding and come with significant financial costs. On top of the activities and resources you may be required to take over or help with, the emotional impact of supporting your loved one with Alzheimer’s can take its toll. Here are some ways you can take care of yourself:

  • Ask for help from others when you need it.
  • Take breaks each day.
  • Don’t neglect your social life—spend time with friends and family.
  • Take time to do your hobbies and other things you love.
  • Stay healthy—keep a healthy diet and get exercise as often as you can.
  • Keep up with your own healthcare provider. Communicate when you are experiencing difficulties.
  • Consider joining a caregiver support group.
  • Look into respite care options, which give caregivers a much-needed break from caregiving activities. Reach out to Fort HealthCare’s Reaching Out Respite Program at (920) 723-7288 for resources in your local area.

When interacting with someone with Alzheimer’s, be kind, slow, concise, and clear. Alzheimer’s disease can cause aggression, agitation, and other behavioral and psychological symptoms. You will need to be prepared to deal with these situations. They may not want to give up some unsafe activities, like driving. You will need to have a conversation about giving up the car keys and other tasks and responsibilities they might not be prepared to let go.


Experts don’t know how to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, because they don’t know exactly what causes it. Genetics are a factor in a small percentage of cases. In most people, the causes are likely due to a combination of lifestyle and environmental factors as well as changes in the brain that come with aging.

Studies have found encouraging evidence that some factors might prevent or delay Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia. You can exercise your brain by learning new things. Be physically active, manage your blood pressure, avoid excessive drinking, and other healthy habits can prevent Alzheimer’s disease or delay its onset or progression.

Finding Help

Alzheimer’s is life-changing for the person who has it and for friends and family members. Knowing what to expect, how to prepare, and how to manage the condition and caring for yourself and your loved one can make life easier and make your loved one’s experience of the condition less impactful.

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And don’t forget to take care of yourself.