How to Help a Loved One Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s

Holding hand of old woman

You may have had your suspicions for months, or even years, but the diagnosis is still devastating when it comes: your loved one has Alzheimer’s. As a caregiver, you join the over 16 million family members and friends in the United States who are on the front lines of providing care for this disease. Even though you are part of this army of millions, you may feel very alone. Your first focus is on your loved one and their needs, but you are no doubt worried about what this journey means for you, too.

As an elder law firm, we work with many older people and their families. Over the years, we’ve gathered some wisdom that we hope will help you and your family deal with what’s ahead.

Knowledge is Power.

Part of what makes the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s so difficult is not knowing what lies down the road. Fortunately, there is a wealth of information available. While learning about Alzheimer’s may make the diagnosis more “real” when you would really prefer not to think about it, knowing what to expect will empower you. You should understand what cognitive screening is, as well as the seven stages of Alzheimer’s.

For many caregivers, there is a strong temptation to deny the reality of their loved one’s worsening condition and to try to get them to “act like themselves” again. This can lead to frustration and desperation for you, as you try without success to get your loved one to function at a level they are no longer capable of. It can also lead to anxiety and shame for your family member with Alzheimer’s. By learning about the condition, you can learn how to accept and support your loved one while making the most of what they can still do and enjoy.

Grieve and Get Support.

Just because you are choosing to accept what is happening doesn’t mean you have to ignore your feelings about it. You are legitimately grieving what has been, and will be, lost: your loved one’s health and plans to independently enjoy their golden years, your own freedom from constant caregiving and worry. This kind of grief is natural, and there’s no getting around it—you must get through it in order to truly accept what’s going on and move forward.

The good news is that there is help to get through your grief, anxiety, stress, and other emotions. You are not the first family member to have to cope with a new diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Many people have walked this path before, and there are many support groups for Alzheimer’s caregivers. You will find it a relief to talk to people who really get what you are going through.

Plan Ahead for Legal, Financial, and Other Needs.

A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can be difficult to accept, but in some ways, it is a gift. Because you know your loved one will need increasing care, you have the gift of time to plan ahead for needs that will almost certainly arise. Don’t squander that time.

A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can be difficult to accept, but in some ways, it is a gift. Because you know your loved one will need increasing care, you have the gift of time to plan ahead for needs that will almost certainly arise. Don’t squander that time.

Even if your loved one is doing relatively well currently, there will come a time when they cannot manage their own finances or make medical decisions for themselves. Neither of you may want to think about that right now, but you must have this difficult conversation. Establishing durable powers of attorney and advance healthcare directives will give both of you peace of mind.

These documents will give you, as caregiver, the authority and knowledge you need to honor your loved one’s wishes for their health care and finances. You may not know exactly when you will need to take over these decisions for your loved one, but having powers of attorney in place allow you to seamlessly step into that role. An estate planning and elder law attorney can help you and your loved one with powers of attorney and advance directives. If your loved one no longer has the legal capacity to execute powers of attorney, you may need to obtain a guardianship (over the person) and conservatorship (over their finances). An elder law attorney can help with this process as well.

At some point your loved one may need to transition to a long-term care facility if you are not able to care for them at home, and it is worth looking into local facilities to understand what is available, the cost, and how long a wait they may have. An elder law attorney can help with long-term care planning. Most people with Alzheimer’s prefer to be at home in a familiar setting for as long as possible, and you may prefer this too. Here are some tips on keeping Alzheimer’s patients safe at home.

Care for the Caregiver.

It may seem that your own needs will have to take a back seat right now, especially if you are in the “sandwich generation” simultaneously caring for your own children and elderly parents. But it is critically important that you take care of yourself. Not only does your loved one need you, but you deserve to be healthy and well. Try to maintain a healthy diet and time for exercise, which is good for your physical as well as mental and emotional health.

Don’t become a martyr to your loved one’s needs. Everyone needs a break sometime. If you do not have other family members or friends who can help with care, there may be respite services for Alzheimer’s caregivers in your area.

As one caregiver observed, learning to care for a family member with Alzheimer’s can be like trying to drink from a fire hose: there’s a lot to take in. If we can help answer your questions or offer you legal support, please contact our law office.

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