Welcome to Age to Age. I’m Sally Smith. Let’s talk.
We have with us, today, Fran Emerson, who is the head of the Alzheimer’s
Association in our area, and has a vast amount of experience in dealing with
people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Fran, one of the things you have said, that I respect, is that to really
be an effective caregiver of someone with Alzheimer’s, you need to not only
understand the person and their personal habits, and personality, but also keep
in mind the basics of the disease: you
understand the disease, you understand the person, you’re a detective trying to
help, to find a happy solution to any problems that arise.
When you say, know
the disease, just the basic overview, we know that the region controlling
temper and personality is vastly changed in Alzheimer’s patients. What are the basic signs of dementia?
I think if you look at those two things, personality and temper, all
parts of brain, of course, are being affected by this illness, but, you know,
you may observe your loved one suddenly displaying behaviors or doing something
totally out of the ordinary that you wouldn’t normally associate with your
mother or father, or you spouse. Often
these are little clues that something serious may be happening with the
brain. What is happening, essentially,
is that the amyloid plaques and tangles, that we know are associated with
Alzheimer’s disease, are attaching themselves and affecting the neurons, or
brain cells, and, one by one, brain cells are dying, and different parts of the
brain are atrophying and ceasing to function.
A lot of the skills that you learn, like social
behavior and developing skills, are slowly being unlearned. So, you know, I hear people say, you know, my
mother was always so proper, so beautifully engaged with other people in social
connections, and now she’s using language that I’ve never heard a sailor use on
the wharf front. They’re shocked. They’re saddened. They’re frightened about this change.
But, getting back to the disease, it’s not the
person’s fault. That person is not
behaving in that manner intentionally.
It is because those parts of the brain, controlling those functions, are
being affected. It’s a physical
phenomenon. And, that’s understanding the disease; that’s understanding why this is
Well, if you were someone who had some of these changes
occurring, say you were a person who began to suspect that you, personally,
were developing some form of Alzheimer’s or dementia, what would you recommend
doing? Would you get analyzed as to
whether it is dementia or, actually, Alzheimer’s? I know that Alzheimer’s is one form of
dementia, and there are many forms of dementia.
Is that the route that you would go if you truly suspected, I mean, you
repeatedly couldn’t find your car in the parking lot? What steps would you take?
Emerson: I would always recommend
getting an early diagnosis. If I truly
felt that I was experiencing some changes and challenges that were sudden and
persistent, I would go and get checked.
I would go and have a mini-mental,
the mini-mental state exam. Many of us
have heard about that. I would get an
appointment with a neurologist and get a diagnosis. We do know that early diagnosis and early treatment
can sustain someone on a higher level of cognitive functioning than if they
were not diagnosed and treated early. I
think that’s really important. And, you
know, it may not be anything serious. It
may be that some other stuff that is happening, physically, with you can cause
you to have a temporary dementing episode that can be treated.
Smith: Well, with the early diagnosis,
as you say, I heard you mention a friend that had an early diagnosis and was
very optimistic, very proactive, and has really outlived her expectations of
not being too demented to enjoy and have a productive life. Is this happening more and more? Do you see this more and more, that early positive
action make a difference?
Emerson: Yes. And I think the news is spreading. I think the news is spreading that the
earlier we catch this, the earlier it’s treated, the better. We can’t fix it, you know. We have to make that clear. This is not a fixable disease, yet. I, personally, believe that it will be in the
future. But we can’t fix it, so get an
early diagnosis. I’ve seen some people
function pretty well for some years, in the early to early mid-stage of this
Smith: Do you have any recommendations,
say it were you, and you have all these years of experience, would there be
certain techniques or strategies, little things you would tell yourself each
day to kind of get yourself on the right track?
Like, would you go out and volunteer for other people, or become more
active in your church, get more involved with support groups? Are there certain techniques or mindsets that
help people be the early achievers in this battle? I’m sure everybody that develops this wants
to be one of the ones that survives happily the longest, in a healthy way. Are there certain things that those people
are doing, other than just medication, that you find are key to their success?
Emerson: Yes. And there are some great examples of those,
people who, first of all, have a positive attitude. It’s really frightening, and it’s easy to get
depressed and kind of give up and withdraw.
And we know that situation, actually, will lead an individual into a
faster decline. Keep active. Keep socially connected. That’s really important. Exercise is really important. Everything that you can do to stimulate your
body, your heart and, consequently, your brain is going to keep you functioning
longer. They’ve done research to show
that this is so. So, keep connected,
volunteer. There are a lot of people who
are involved in support groups, which are hugely empowering to family
caregivers to help them on this journey of caregiving. So, yes, stay connected, keep involved. There’s a certain amount of truth in that old
saying, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Even at the beginning of this disease, you can help keep yourself going
by using it.
Smith: Wow, valuable advice. Fran, thank you so much. It’s so wonderful to have you with us again
today. Thanks to all our listeners too
for joining us, and we welcome your suggestions. This is Sally Smith, Age to Age, saying good-bye and wishing you courage and joy on your
own journey. We are all connected.
If you enjoy
listening to Sally Smith, you can buy her book, The Circle. It’s the story of how she personally
responded to her mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a wonderful gift of hope for anyone with
a parent with dementia. Just click on
Sally Smith’s name under the Health Professionals tab on the Podcast home
page. All profits support research at
the Center on Aging. Thanks.