Alzheimer’s Affects So Many Of Us

alzheimer-disorderIn 2000 the state of Florida declared February 6 “Alzheimer’s Day,” in honor of former President Ronald Reagan. In 1994 President Reagan shared with the American people the fact that he had Alzheimer’s disease. It is difficult to imagine someone who was once a world leader being stricken with a disease that makes you forget even the names of your closest family and friends.

President Reagan is not alone in his suffering. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, about 4.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with the disease. More than 19 million family members are affected, many of them teenagers; it can be emotionally traumatic for all of them.

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a disorder that causes the gradual loss of brain cells, mostly in older adults. People with Alzheimer’s disease have difficulty with memory, thinking skills, and communication. You may notice someone with Alzheimer’s asking the same question over and over, becoming upset or angry easily, and having difficulty completing simple tasks and chores. Eventually the disease will lead to a person becoming totally noncommunicative and physically helpless.

Symptoms

From time to time, you may forget to go to an appointment, or you may have trouble recalling the name of someone you just met. But Alzheimer’s is different. People with this disease forget things often. Eventually they are unable to remember them altogether–even the names of their children and grandchildren. Misplaced items often turn up in strange places. Keys may be in the refrigerator and wristwatches in sugar bowls. Other behaviors Alzheimer’s patients exhibit are:

* difficulty performing everyday tasks such as cooking meals or doing laundry

* wandering from home and then getting lost

* problems thinking of the right word to use in conversations

* using poor judgment; for example, wearing little clothing on a cold day, or giving large amounts of money away to telemarketers

* changes in mood and personality

* not wanting to participate in a favorite hobby or activity

* sleeping and watching television more than usual.

Vitamins, Herbs, and Medication

While researchers continue to look for treatments to stop or slow down the disease, there are medications that may improve or stabilize the symptoms. Many people with Alzheimer’s disease take cholinesterase inhibitors. These drugs prevent the breakdown of a chemical in the brain that is important for memory and other thinking skills. High doses of vitamin E may help some symptoms. Scientists are also looking at a number of existing drugs, vitamins, and herbs that may offer some protection to brain cells. Researchers hope to learn whether these treatments help people with Alzheimer’s or help prevent the onset of the disease in healthy people.

Alzheimer’s and Teens

How does a disease that normally strikes people over 65 affect you? According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 75 percent of all patients with Alzheimer’s are cared for at home by their families. Many teens and young adults now find themselves living with and caring for a family member or friend with this disease. All of a sudden, life can become very difficult. Normal routines are disrupted. Parents may give less time and attention to their children, who may have to assume extra responsibilities. Teens may be sad about what is happening to their grandparent, anxious about their own parent getting the disease, and often too embarrassed to bring friends home.

What can be done? If you have a question or are worried, talk with a parent or teacher. Getting an honest answer is always better than imagining what may be happening. Keeping a journal and writing down all of your feelings is better than keeping them inside. Continuing to be a part of your relative’s or friend’s life by doing activities together can be a fun and easy way to interact. Here are some activities you can do together:

* Take walks.

* Help with household chores.

* Listen to music or watch television.

* Look at old photographs.

* Read the newspaper or a book to him or her.

There is no question that Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating illness. But when you are educated about the disease and can become an effective caregiver, living with someone with Alzheimer’s can be a meaningful experience for both you and your loved one.

In Her Own Words

Liz Diamandis, of Arlington, Massachusetts, is a freshman in high school. She is a good student and a talented bass player. Both her great-grandfather and grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

“Living with someone with Alzheimer’s disease, you may experience a lot of different feelings,” Liz says. “I was confused a lot about their illness and angry because life was grossly unfair. I felt awful when they died. Now I just feel sad, like I missed out on having two wonderful people in my life.”

For Liz, it helps to volunteer. She feels better when she helps others. “Learn to enjoy the person with Alzheimer’s for who they are now and not who they used to be,” Liz says. “They may not be able to do the things they could when they weren’t sick, but you can find different things to do together.”

Every year Liz volunteers at a Memory Walk, a national event to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association. When she was 4 years old, she participated in her first Memory Walk by handing out drinks at a water stop. When she was old enough, she began raising money and walking in the event. This year will be her eleventh walk.

Liz also gives up her school vacations to work in the office of the local Alzheimer’s Association chapter. Her favorite volunteer job is one that she created herself. Every year she puts together an Alzheimer’s disease information booth for her “town day.” She spends time talking to people about the importance of early diagnosis, getting help, and participating in the Memory Walk. Liz is one of the longest-term volunteers, and she is only 15 years old!

She believes that living with someone she loved who was suffering from Alzheimer’s taught her an important life lesson: Treat other people the way you would want to be treated. She would tell anyone her age–or any age–to remember that.

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