What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

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What is Alzheimer's Disease?Alzheimer’s Disease affects 35 million people and their families around the world. There are few people who have not heard of Alzheimer’s or been touched by it, and most of us experience feelings of fear and sadness around the disease.

When we think of Alzheimer’s, we think of:

  • Old age
  • Memory loss
  • Dementia
  • Grandmother, mother, father
  • A life sentence

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease of the brain and there is a predictable path according to the disease charts. Although there may be variations of the rate of progression and lifespan of an Alzheimer’s patient, there is little doubt about the final outcome.

Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging.

Many of us have a personal story about a loved one stricken by Alzheimer’s. Mine is about my mother-in-law. Early on when she was forgetful, she would jokingly say, “Please forgive me; I am getting Alzheimer’s.” We have all heard this line before and maybe said it ourselves. My mother-in-law did have a strong genetic family history for the disease and joking about her normal memory challenges was a way to make light of the fear she harboured.

My mother-in-law was an avid reader and loved books. When she stopped reading, we did not consider that her brain was deteriorating. We were all in denial, which is a normal defense against the unthinkable. Until Alzheimer’s touches you personally, there may be less motivation to understand it fully. If it does enter your world, education prepares you to support the afflicted loved one and develop self-coping skills.

My personal observations of Alzheimer’s have resulted in recognizing the three distinct stage progressions.

The first stage – mild Alzheimer’s disease

The first stage can be very stressful and unsettling for the afflicted individual. A great deal of effort may be directed on compensating for or concealing the deterioration of their memory. The individual is aware that their cognitive functioning is declining. This may lead to mood swings that could eventually impact interpersonal relationships.

The second stage – moderate Alzheimer’s disease

As Alzheimer’s progresses, the individual becomes less aware of the impact of the disease. They are unable to conceptualize what is happening to them. Personal and interpersonal functioning continues to break down in numerous ways. Dependence upon others for day-to-day functioning increases as brain function declines. The patient may have better days, and glimmers of their former self may appear and then vanish.

The third stage – severe Alzheimer’s disease

As Alzheimer’s advances to the third and final stage, the person is no longer able to communicate in a meaningful way and self-care is impossible.

The diagnosed individual requires increasing levels of support through the three stages of Alzheimer’s. Caregivers wrestle with emotions associated with loss and grieving through this process. They are forced to accept that the relationship with the afflicted individual must change. Whether the relationship was a good one or troubled, it is a stressful heartbreaking experience. Many refer to this process as “the long goodbye.”

Support for caregivers is essential and as important as the support the Alzheimer’s sufferer requires, which is where your employee assistance program (EAP) can help. If you require advice or help in coping with a loved one with Alzheimer’s, please do not hesitate to contact your EAP. We will connect you to an expert in this field and get you the support and advice you need when and where you need it.

Another place to turn to for help is the Alzheimer Society, Canada website which offers a wealth of information and links to provincial sites and services. Each link provides comprehensive and accessible information about current medical research, resources and advice for both caregivers and those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. There are opportunities to get involved in helping others by joining various initiatives and assisting the work to finding a cure. Private and public organizations also offer support and education. In addition, assistance with care options, support groups and counseling are available.

To seek help during this difficult time, visit workhealthlife.com for options on how to access counsellors and experts in this field.

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