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Diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease and What Comes After

By Katherine Judge, PhD | 06/12/2019

As your loved one ages, you may grow concerned about the possibility of them developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. However, you may not know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of the disease, how best to discuss your concerns with your loved one, or how to care for them if a diagnosis is made. If you are looking to take some initial steps to assess your loved one’s condition, consider these common questions regarding Alzheimer’s disease to help you better understand the disease and its symptoms and what steps you can take to prepare yourself and your loved one for a diagnosis. 

How can I tell if my loved one has Alzheimer’s?

Currently, there is no definitive biological marker or blood test that can be used to determine beyond a doubt that someone has Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia. However, clinicians use biological based tests to rule out other explanations, such as thyroid disorder or an infection, and use neuropsychological tests to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia based on an individual’s cognitive performance. These tests can be lengthy and may be frustrating for individuals, but are extremely important in ruling out treatable conditions and in receiving a diagnosis. 

Research shows that most individuals show subtle signs of Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia anywhere from three to five years before an actual diagnosis is made. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s also can be further delayed by the assumption held by many that symptoms of Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia—such as memory loss, difficulty completing familiar tasks, difficulty formulating words and confusion about time and place—are part of the natural aging process, which may keep individuals and their families from getting checked earlier. This is why clinicians and researchers emphasize that these symptoms are not part of the normal aging process and contrary to common belief, most older adults will not develop Alzheimer’s or dementia as they age. For example, only around 5.7 million of the 50 million older adults over the age of 65 in America are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. 

How can I encourage my loved one to visit a doctor about Alzheimer’s symptoms?

It is important when speaking with your loved one about memory loss to acknowledge that they are an individual, and what may be effective for one person may not work for another person. Open dialogue is key, but you should be sure to communicate with your loved one in the way that is most comfortable to them, whether that involves telling them directly that you think they should visit a doctor about their symptoms, or broaching the subject tactfully. Alzheimer’s can be a frightening topic for many, especially for someone in the early stages who is facing the possibility of losing memories and cognitive function. However, it’s important to address your concerns with your loved one before a crisis happens. 

If your loved one’s condition reaches a point where their safety or the safety of others is at risk, then it is imperative to have them visit a doctor, even if they are still hesitant.

If my loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, should they be put in an assisted living facility or be cared for at home?

This is a very personal decision and there is not a right or wrong answer as all families are different and have different resources. Ideally engaging in future care planning early on with your loved one is important and helpful so that you are prepared to make a decision if the time comes when your loved one needs more care. Alzheimer’s disease exists on a continuum where individuals begin with early stage symptoms which then develop into more moderate and severe symptoms as time passes. When your loved one receives a diagnosis in the early stages of the disease, they should still be able to get around much as they did before the diagnosis. As the disease progresses and their capabilities change, it is important to keep your loved one involved in discussions and to respect their rights, decisions, values and preferences along the illness continuum. If they would prefer to continue to live in their own home, that preference should be honored, if possible.

In most cases, individuals with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia are taken care of at home rather than a memory care facility, unless:

  • There is no one available to take care of them
  • Their primary caregiver can no longer take care of them in the home due to burden, stress, lack of support, financial issues, work or childcare responsibilities

How can I prepare the home for caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s?

If your loved one is remaining in the same home they have previously lived in, their procedural and spatial-related long-term memory should help them navigate their home safely and remember where things are located with relative ease. To reduce potential confusion and difficulty as the illness progresses, families can label items and locations around the house, as well as post ‘how-to-do’ lists that can guide your loved one in completing certain tasks that they are still able to do, such as watering plants, cleaning a pet cage or making a simple meal. These lists will help them practice their existing skills and abilities and engage them in meaningful activities, while taking some of the burden off of you to complete every household task on your own.

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Navigating the Different Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease as a Caregiver

Navigating the Path: A Guide for New Dementia Caregivers

Understanding Different Types of Dementia

What to Know About Dementia Screening and Assessment Tools