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November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, first designated back in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan, at which time only two million Americans suffered from the disease. Today, that number has soared to 5.7 million. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is a degenerative brain disease that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and worsen over time, becoming so severe that they interfere with daily tasks, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. If you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s going through end of life care in Santa Clara and elsewhere, read on to learn the effects of Alzheimer’s on the physical body.

Brain and Body Connection

Most people understand the cognitive effects of this debilitating disease; what many people don’t realize is how it can affect the body physically as well. Not only can it alter the way a person walks and talks, it can affect how the body works now and over time as the disease progresses. Sadly, the cause of Alzheimer’s is still largely unknown but researchers believe it is caused by a buildup of harmful proteins in the brain known as amyloid. Those proteins clump together into tangles and plaques, interfering with normal brain functioning, says WebMD. They also kill off healthy brain cells.In the early stages, memory is affected. In later stages, bodily behaviors start to change, making everyday activities such as walking, eating, talking and even toileting more difficult. How fast these symptoms come on will depend on the person. Sometimes it’s a slow progression, as some people can live with this diagnosis for 20 years. Others just four or so.

What to Expect

From slow walking to poor balance, there are many physical symptoms that can manifest themselves as time wears on. You can expect some or all of the following changes:

  • Loss of balance and coordination
  • Shuffling or dragging feet when walking
  • Trouble standing or sitting in a chair
  • Weak or stiff muscles
  • Fatigue
  • Problems sleeping
  • Difficulty controlling bladder and bowels
  • Uncontrollable twitches or seizures
  • Difficulty chewing and swallowing

These challenges usually cause those with Alzheimer’s to lose the ability to take care of themselves. That’s why they enlist home health care or enter into hospice for more help getting through. If you are a caregiver for your loved one, you will be called upon to help them with basic tasks such as brushing their teeth, washing their hair, and dressing them every day. You may get frustrated with your loved one because it becomes difficult to have coherent and meaningful conversations.

In the early stages, very little is physically different about the person. Once the middle stage creeps in, muscle ability starts to decline, as well as the ability to hold urine and bowel movements. The mental capacity to interpret the body’s signals starts to take a nose dive. In the late stages of the disease, physical ability becomes significantly compromised, with limited walking and range of motion. You’ll need to feed your loved one and watch out if they have problems swallowing or start to choke. End-of-life decisions are usually made at this time.

How Caregivers Can Help

There are many things family members and caregivers can do to help boost the quality of life for their loved one with Alzheimer’s when it comes to easing their physical limitations.

  • Encourage your loved one to exercise. Bring them on walks, do some stretches, get out into the garden…whatever it is, make sure it involves physical activity and fresh air when possible. Encourage them to be as independent as possible throughout daily living. They will ask you for help when they need it, at least in the beginning stages.
  • Set them up with physical or occupational therapy. When you start noticing a decline in their ability to walk or get dressed on their own or experience a disturbance in their balance, contact a therapist to help build up strength, reinforce self-care, and reduce fall risks through the improvement of balance, points out Very Well Health. These therapists can also visit the home to identify any possible safety hazards.
  • Try passive range of motion exercise. In the later stages, your loved one may be able to benefit from some range of motion exercises involving movement of the arms, wrists, hands, legs, and feet. When these appendages are stretched, they are less likely to experience painful spasms.
  • Encourage healthy eating to maintain physical functioning. While eating and drinking can cause nutritional challenges with dementia, it’s important to stay on top of their diet and make sure they’re eating and eating well.
  • Care for their skin. When physical movement is limited in dementia’s later stages, skin breakdown can occur. Keep your loved one well moisturized to prevent cuts, scrapes, chafing and dry skin.

Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice

Learn all about our dementia care services here. We can connect your loved one with a home health or hospice team that can ease you and your loved one through each stage of Alzheimer’s. Give us a call today at 888-755-7855.