How To Better Understand A Loved One With Alzheimer’s

NOTE:  I wrote this after viewing the Edge of Humanity Magazine’s post on March 6. The title is The Faces of Alzheimer’s Disease, a contribution of portrait photography by Alex ten Napel. Please take a few moments to view the images here.

Alzheimers FaceREV

If you’ve ever spent time in an Alzheimer’s/Dementia unit then these faces should look familiar. 

Not the individuals themselves, but their expressions and the moods they reflect. These faces range from thoughtful and smiling to frustrated and expressionless. They’re like the ones we all display at various times. 

The difference is that ours are prompted by clear thoughts and emotions, triggered by specific circumstances. An Alzheimer’s patient often can’t account for what they’re thinking and feeling at any given moment. 

The folks looking thoughtful may actually be unable to focus, their minds overrun with many simultaneous thoughts. They quietly struggle to locate memories or ideas.

Those who are smiling with amusement sometimes do so for no apparent reason. At times they’ll burst into giddy laughter as if they’re privy to some joke that no one else knows.

Then there are the angry, frustrated episodes as the patient lashes out with rage and profanity at everyone around them.

A blank stare can indicate that the person has momentarily disappeared deeper into the fog that is gradually taking over their conscious mind.

The unpredictability of these mood swings is unnerving for family and friends who are slowly watching their loved one slip away.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that destroys healthy brain cells. The symptoms worsen over time and a person can suffer with it from four to eight years on average. Depending on the circumstances, life expectancy may last up to twenty years after diagnosis. 

ChangeChanges in the brain begin to occur years before any symptoms present themselves. This is referred to as the “preclinical” period. 

Looking back, I recall times when my dad behaved oddly or had difficulty doing a task that he’d done a hundred times before.

He took medications for high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes, but we weren’t aware of the changes occurring in his brain.

I don’t know if the doctors warned him about dementia as a possible outcome of his other conditions. If they did he chose not to share that information with our family.

Three Stages of Alzheimer’s:

Mild (Early Stage) 

In the earliest stages of the disease, the person is still able to function independently. They continue their normal routines with only slight lapses of memory and minor confusion. There can be physical signs, as well. Family members may begin to notice these difficulties. A trained physician can detect problems with concentration and memory through a detailed exam. Likewise, physical exams often expose changes in gait and balance.

Moderate (Middle Stage) 

This is the stage that typically lasts the longest, sometimes for years. Symptoms, both mental and physical, become much more obvious and the loved one requires a greater level of care. The confusion and disorientation that begins in the middle stage influences the person’s perception of reality.

They also experience communication problems. At times they have difficulty expressing their thoughts and feelings and can’t understand what others are saying. They struggle to remember the meanings of words. This level of disorientation creates fear, anger, and embarrassment.

Severe (Late Stage) 

Patients in this stage require full-time assistance with daily activities and personal care. They have difficulty communicating and lose awareness of their surroundings. They no longer recognize familiar faces. Their physical condition worsens along with their mental state.

It’s important to become familiar with these stages so that caretakers can understand what the patient is experiencing.

Alzheimer Brain

Despite the ongoing challenges, there are strategies available to handle these problems. Marie Marley has authored two books and numerous articles on ways to deal with the behavioral issues of dementia patients. In the past, she has focused specifically on the very difficult job of being a caretaker.

However, after reading The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care Marley realized that she’d never considered how the patient feels. The book, written by Virginia Bell and David Troxel, explains it in a way that the reader can experience those feelings. 

In Marley’s post, she gives an example from the book that really drives this point home. The authors remind the reader of how it felt to be called on in class and not know the correct answer. Then they point out that life for an Alzheimer’s patient is living in that classroom every day and never having the correct answer. 

 Education is the key to understanding how the illness affects the patient both mentally and physically, and how to manage their care more effectively.

The  Alzheimer’s Association is an excellent starting point for your research. They are the leading voluntary health organization committed to caring, support, and research for Alzheimer’s/Dementia patients and their families.

Because there is no cure, Alzheimer’s eventually renders the person completely dependent and powerless.

But, knowledge is power and being able to provide compassionate and informed care is something that benefits both patient and caretaker.

It is also the best and final gift we can offer our loved one.






Reblog: The Faces of Alzheimer’s Disease

A touching collection of portraits of Alzheimer’s patients.

Photographer Alex ten Napel is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this portrait photography. These images are from his project ‘Portrait – Alzheimer‘. To see Alex’s portraits click on any image. See also: Young Diplomats By Alex ten Napel Back to HOME PAGE

via The Faces Of Alzheimer’s Disease — Edge of Humanity Magazine

Put the Edge of Humanity Magazine on your list of blogs to check out. 

Laughter Through Tears


See that faint smile on his face? 

Even the confusion of dementia didn’t prevent him from appreciating a lovely lady like his therapist. He didn’t really understand who she was or the purpose of the therapy, but he followed along because she was so kind and, yes, very pretty! 

The dementia didn’t prevent him from being the manager that he was in a work career that spanned 45+ years. During those nine months in the Alzheimer’s unit, he often mistook the other residents as employees. One day my mom and I were sitting with Dad in the main visiting room. We were off to the side in chairs near the large fish tank. About seven other patients, all women, were seated around the long tables, in the various forms of regress that are the hallmarks of dementia. Dad motioned at the others, shaking his head with disgust, and informed us that he wasn’t sure “what was up” with these ladies.

“What do you mean Dad,” I inquired.

“They come here every morning at 6 am and just sit around all day doing nothing. I’m surprised they haven’t been fired yet. I’d fire them if they were my employees,” he informed us.

My mother and I looked at each other, startled and then quickly looked away, attempting to conceal our laughter.

The dementia didn’t prevent him from wanting to leave. He would ask us to bring the car around, so that we could go home. We’d have to tell him that he needed more therapy and couldn’t leave just yet. Those were the hardest moments, knowing he wasn’t ever going home. It was incomprehensible to me that he would never sit in his brown leather chair, or plant the tomatoes and onions by the garage, or make his daily rounds at the local grocery stores, mom’s list in hand. 

The dementia didn’t steal his appetite. He continued to eat the food that came to him on a tray three times a day. They weren’t like the meals mom cooked and towards the end it had to be pureed. We would bring him home cooked dishes and baked goods, which he ate with enthusiasm. I’d also bring McDonald’s french fries and chocolate milkshakes and other take out items that he used to love. It was incredibly satisfying to watch him enjoy his old favorites.

The dementia didn’t steal his sense of humor. I remember an incident, involving one of the other patients, that showed Dad could still appreciate a moment of levity. Dick was one of my favorite people in the unit. He was good-natured and smiling all the time. One day he stood up from his chair and gave a “reach for the sky” kind of stretch. As he stretched he began to pass gas loud enough for everyone to hear. It was a long, slow puttering sound that lasted about five full seconds, having no meaning for him or the other residents sitting nearby. Once again, my mom and I almost lost it, but we managed to control ourselves. At least until my Dad looked at us with a very obvious WTF expression and proceeded to roll his eyes and shake his head.

There were a few funny moments during the mostly somber months Dad spent in the nursing home and we’ll always remember them. Dad’s clarity at those times allowed us to see what remained of the father I had always known and loved. They were a true gift.


However, over time the dementia did steal every part of my Dad, including his life. Fortunately, the placement in the nursing home only lasted nine months. I had no idea the extent of my own depression and pain until the day he passed away.

I was with him at the end. The moment the hospice nurse announced that he was gone, I felt my spirit soar right along with his. With a smile and tears on my face I kissed his cheek, leaned close, and whispered: 

“Hey, Dad, guess what? The therapy is finished. You’re finally going home.”