In 2006, Mary McKinlay, then 61, realized something wasn’t right. “I was having a lot of confusion,” says the Brockville, Ont. resident. “The final straw was when I couldn’t figure out how to put my dentures in.”
Her doctor diagnosed her with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative, progressive, fatal brain disease, and prescribed a medication called a cholinesterase inhibitor to halt her brain’s decline.
The effect has been dramatic. Though there have been adjustments – McKinlay finds busy, noisy environments overwhelming and she relies on her husband Jim to be her watchdog — seven years later, McKinlay blogs about her life at Living with dementia, travels extensively, volunteers at Alzheimer’s support groups and gives keynote speeches for a number of organizations.
While McKinlay recognizes that not everyone’s experience with Alzheimer’s is as fortunate as her own, she recommends that the newly diagnosed seize the day. “I’m a great advocate of getting out there and enjoying life,” she says. “If you adjust your lifestyle, you can carry on. You need to keep your brain active — don’t be a vegetable. You’ve got a lot of great living ahead.”
The number of Canadians living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia now stands at 747,000 and will double to 1.4 million by 2031, according to a fact sheet from the Alzheimer Society of Canada on risk factors. It’s one of the reasons that Health Canada has declared January to be Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month.
The disease kills brain cells until a person is incapable of performing tasks, remembering things and, eventually, of even performing bodily functions such as speaking or swallowing. Risk factors for the disease include being female, having Alzheimer’s in your family, being diabetic, smoking, not engaging in physical — and cognitive activity — and being depressed.
Warning signs of Alzheimer’s
- Significant memory loss. Forgetting the names of family members, key appointments and familiar addresses may be a sign of Alzheimer’s.
- Difficulty with everyday tasks. Preparing meals, tying shoelaces, and buttoning a coat may suddenly present challenges.
- Putting things in odd places. Are keys turning up in the fridge or a toothbrush in the dryer?
- Problems with speech. Some may forget simple words and slur their speech.
- Changes in mood and behaviour. Sudden changes in personality, such as apathy, fearfulness, a lack of confidence, or suspiciousness could signal an issue. Sharp mood swings — from euphoria to irritability — may also be a clue to developing Alzheimer’s.
Though daunting, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s by no means indicates a person will decline rapidly. When their condition is caught early, many people take up new hobbies, learn new languages or take long-awaited vacations. “There’s a lot of disbelief, sadness and worry about the future,” says Kathy Hickman, education manager for the Alzheimer Society of Ontario. “But recent advances in the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s have made possible a greater quality of life for many than was possible in the past.”
The key is getting diagnosed early. If not caught until an advanced stage, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can be challenging, says Marija Padjen, chief program officer for the Alzheimer Society of Toronto. And the strain of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s can lead to physical and mental-health issues for the caregiver, such as decreased immunity, higher levels of stress hormones, depression and anxiety, insomnia and muscle and back issues.
Caring for a person with Alzheimer’s
- Remember your own needs. While the person with Alzheimer’s is the centre of attention, do not neglect yourself, says Padjen: “This isn’t a disease you can cope with by yourself.” Call upon friends to give you a break, plan nights out, take 10-minute mental-health breaks – even if it’s just a bath or a walk around the block.
- Don’t negate your emotions. It’s normal to feel guilt, sadness, and anger after a diagnosis, notes the Alzheimer Society’s fact sheet, Impact on family and friends.
- Seek counselling if you feel anxiety and depression mounting.
- Delegate if possible. While you may feel like it’s your duty to care for your spouse or parent, ask family members or friends to drive the person with Alzheimer’s to the doctor, buy groceries or tidy up the house.
- Join support groups online to share experiences. One option is the Alzheimer Society Message Board.
- Set up meetings with financial planners, attorneys, etc. Try to do this as soon as possible, while the person with Alzheimer’s is still functioning well.
- Make time for physical activity and sleep. Sneaking in a workout can help you get the break you need.
Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease:
- The Alzheimer Society has just launched a new campaign, with the slogan: See me, not my disease: Let’s talk about dementia
More on your health:
- My doctor says I have diabetes — now what?
- New advances in the battle against breast cancer
- How to help prevent age-related eye diseases
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