The What-Ifs of Alzheimer’s, those panicky thoughts and questions that pop into your head as you go through your days as a caregiver, can steal every tool in your caregiving arsenal: your energy, your strength, your confidence, your creativity. The key to getting rid of the anxiety is to replace it with a plan. Today we consider, “What if the loved one you’re caring for suffers a major injury or becomes seriously ill?”
I confess: this is a question that didn’t keep me awake at night. Why? Mom had always been healthy. She was a physically strong and active woman until depression and Alzheimer’s began stealing her life away.*
Perhaps because the disease attacked her mind so ferociously, I tended to minimize the effects it had on Mom’s body. Alzheimer’s affected her appetite, her willingness to get exercise, her hygiene. Yes, I saw. Yes, I was concerned. But my concern translated to fixing those problems. I couldn’t fight the tangles of protein in her brain, but maybe I could entice her with healthier food options, persuade her to walk with me a bit more, even bathe with her if that would get her into the tub. I knew that, minus any other fatal disease, Alzheimer’s would inhibit her brain function to a degree that would eventually cause her death. But I didn’t consider that, in the meantime, the effects of the disease on her body could shorten her life.
Even when I arrived at my parents’ home early one morning and found Dad trying to help Mom up off the floor in their bedroom, I wasn’t overly concerned.
“Does something hurt, Mama? Where do you hurt?” I asked. I touched her knees, her hips, her ankles. “Here? Here? Here?”
She smiled. “No.” And then, “I can’t do it.”
Dad and I had grown accustomed to Mom’s occasional inability to do what we asked her to do. Sometimes she just shook her head to signal she couldn’t open her mouth—unless we offered her a potato chip. Or she couldn’t get out of her chair to go to the bathroom—“I can’t stand up”—but her legs worked just fine to make an excursion to the coffee shop.
On this day, since Mom hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since the night before, I started there. I brought a straight-backed chair into the room, helped her onto the chair and into fresh underwear and clothes, and got her some orange juice. Then she wanted to go back to bed. So we helped her lie down, grateful she was dressed and had some nourishment.
Later that evening, she was still lying down, still in the same position on the bed. We could see no injury; she said again that nothing hurt. We called the doctor, then called an ambulance. Two days later her broken left hip was replaced with a new one made of titanium. But after the surgery, every rehab session was like the first one all over again. Mom remembered nothing from one session to the next. Eventually she refused even to try. One month and one day after she broke her hip, Mom died.
In our situation, there was little we could have done to change the outcome of the injury. Because Mom couldn’t do the rehab, with or without the surgery to replace her hip she would have been bedridden. She died—with Alzheimer’s, because of Alzheimer’s—of complications from being bedridden.
Still, while we weren’t able to prevent her death, there were issues we could have tackled in advance that would have made the time after her injury easier for everyone—especially for her. The information listed below will, I hope, help you to consider in advance some critical decisions you may one day have to make in a hurry.
- Because Alzheimer’s impairs your loved one’s ability to find the correct words, determining how he feels, what symptoms he’s experiencing, can be challenging. Accurate diagnosis of any illness, and therefore treatment, becomes much more difficult. A primary care physician who is experienced in treating people who have Alzheimer’s is a treasure.
- As Alzheimer’s takes away their good judgment, it can be harder to convince our loved ones to eat nutritious foods and get sufficient exercise. Weakness and lack of balance can cause accidents and injuries. Getting a professional aide in to help your loved one with exercise and hygiene is a good investment in terms of health and safety. As the disease progresses, you’ll need to be more and more alert to your loved one’s safety.
- As Alzheimer’s steals the willingness—and, eventually, the ability—to cooperate, recuperation from an illness or injury is more difficult. Rehabilitation of muscles and limbs may be much harder to achieve, or even impossible. My experience tells me that any treatment requiring repetition of movement or speech will be difficult and perhaps impossible for someone with advanced Alzheimer’s to accomplish.
- Issues such as diet, sleep patterns, and patient cooperation make even the prescribing and administration of medications for an Alzheimer’s patient more complicated. Caregivers may have difficulty achieving the proper manner and scheduling for giving medication, and possible side effects will be more difficult to monitor. Again, having a doctor who is familiar with the impact of Alzheimer’s on a patient is an immense help to caregivers.
- A sudden illness or injury may necessitate not only hospitalization, but also moving your loved one to a professional care facility for a time. My father and I were shocked when we were told Mom would be released at noon the following day but she could not go home. She would have to be placed in a nursing facility. I had done no research on professional facilities—what was available, where she would get the best care, what we could afford, what would be closest and most convenient for us to visit, etc. We were able to gain another 24 hours before Mom was released, but the surprise and stress and rush to make arrangements that would so deeply impact both my parents’ lives took a huge toll on our whole family. There is no substitute for doing your research into care facilities before the need is anywhere in view. You may never need to make that choice, or you may end up with weeks to decide, or you may have only hours. Having a couple of options to choose from will free you from worry in the present and panic in the future.
- The time to transition from nursing care to hospice care can arrive suddenly, with little or no warning. While being “prepared” for that eventuality may seem impossible, knowledge of what hospice is and what it isn’t, understanding how it can benefit a patient and family, and consideration of whether the concept of hospice care fits into your family’s caregiving philosophy—those things will help you if hospice care is suggested for your loved one.
A comforting answer to “What if my loved one with Alzheimer’s experiences a serious illness or injury?” is this: We’ve thought about that. We’ve looked at many of the issues we need to consider. We’re aware of the options available to deal with those issues. We can always ask for help. We’re never alone. In short, we know we can do this.
Yes, you can.
*NOTE: Depression is a subject that’s treated in various other postings on my blog. Because it is such a huge complicating factor to Alzheimer’s, I encourage you to get more information about it. I’ll discuss in greater depth my own experience with how depression teamed up with Alzheimer’s to affect my mother in a new post to appear early in 2018.
And the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the Mighty God…by the God of your father who will help you, and by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above…. (Gen. 49:24-25 NKJV)
Father, help us do our best for those we care for. We rely on Your strength, Your wisdom, and Your love for us and for our loved ones. Knowing You are always near makes us stronger, wiser, more loving. Thank You, Father.