This is the first article in a series by the Starts at 60 community on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
It’s estimated that today 1.2 million people in Australia are involved with the care of someone with dementia. In less than four years we will have in excess of 400,000 with the disease, which is currently the second leading cause of death in this country.
Although primarily a disease of the elderly, over 25,000 currently have early onset dementia i.e. they are between the ages of 30 and 65.
I was recently speaking to a woman, my age who is caring for her mother-in-law in her home. MIL is in the end stage of dementia. Her husband who was assisting with his mother’s care, has just been diagnosed in the early stages of dementia. Having been caregiver for her MIL for the past nine years, she is now faced with a possible further 10 years or more as a carer for her husband. She has understandably struggled under this latest diagnosis.
My journey was with my mum, who passed last year after a rapid decline, diagnosed with Lewy Body and Parkinson’s dementia.
My active, vibrant mother, never on medication, started struggling with simple concepts. On one of her regular visits I noticed she was confused by the sliding doors if they were ajar. She had sliding doors at home, but couldn’t work them on occasion and often needed direction to her room. Her placid demeanour was interrupted by flashes of anger. I was aghast to hear her commenting loudly on a stranger’s weight. Not something she would ever have done normally. All early signs of dementia.
Both in their mid-80s, my father was struggling to care for her. She lost the will or the ability to cook or shop, driving was too risky. We asked them to come live with us but they felt a care facility would be the best option.
Mum quickly transitioned from low care to high care. She could no longer dress, wash or toilet herself. Her speech became garbled and she would wander searching often for her parents, or her husband (who was right beside her but no longer looked like the man she recalled as her husband).
I spent weeks at a time with her. I got to know the other residents. I saw the heartbreak of a woman whose husband was a resident, when he became very attached to a female resident. When his wife arrived to visit, the ‘girlfriend’ would cry hanging on to his hand. He would soothe her and tell her he’d be back soon, before leaving with his heartbroken wife who was taking him for lunch. His wife understood, but her pain was palpable.
Dad and I attending a training seminar on dementia to help him with the changes to come. Simple strategies on how to deal with everyday challenges are invaluable. The three cornerstones to caring for someone with dementia are information, love and patience. There are some great resources out there. Teepa Snow on You Tube has many down to earth tutorials. Your local health care service, forums on Facebook — such as Memory People — all have value.
I came to see that my mum’s illness was her last gift to me. She taught me so much.
My top tips?
It’s hugely important to understand the system around dying. When your loved one is in palliative care it’s vital to be their advocate and to know what you can ask for. This is a whole subject in itself but needs to be addressed, perhaps at a later date.