Supporting those who care for others

One in 10 Americans over age 65 and almost half of those over 85 have Alzheimer's disease or a related type of dementia (loss of intellectual functioning).

Alzheimer's disease (AD), the most common form of dementia, involves a gradual breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. Affected persons lose the ability to interpret information and to send messages to their body to behave in certain ways. Over time they experience mental, emotional, behavioral and physical changes, necessitating increasing amounts of supervision and, eventually, hands-on help with activities of daily living.

Spouses and children provide most - if not all - of that care. They are at increased risk for depression and other health problems due to the emotional strain and the physical toll of caregiving.

The following are some things that you, as a friend or relative, can do to help prevent an Alzheimer's caregiver you know from wearing down.

Keep in touch. Recognize that you may have to make most of the effort in maintaining the relationship.

Become informed. Educate yourself about AD - to help you understand the kinds of challenges caregivers can be faced with - and share information with family and friends. Share findings with the caregiver as well.

Lend an ear. Listen nonjudgmentally, and demonstrate compassion. Don't give unsolicited advice.

Promote self-care. Encourage the caregiver to eat nutritiously, exercise and get sufficient rest in order to maintain good health. Do whatever you can to help make this happen. For example, bring over a meal, or offer to sit with their relative while they go for a walk or take a nap. Also encourage them to get regular medical checkups and offer to stay with their relative while they attend appointments.

Provide practical help. Determine what kind of assistance the caregiver could use most. Perhaps it's picking up groceries, running errands, or doing laundry or yard work. If your assistance is declined, continue to express your desire to help. Meanwhile, take it upon yourself to deliver a casserole or baked goods or, if you're a neighbor, sweep both walks or bring in both sets of trash cans.

Surprise the caregiver with a treat. Ideas include a favorite magazine, a rented movie, fresh flowers or a plant, or a gift certificate to a restaurant that has delivery service.

Give the caregiver a break. Offer to sit with their relative for an hour while they go out to a hair appointment or to church, or for a longer stretch so they can attend a social event.

Locate resources. Offer to obtain information about community support services such as home care, adult day care and residential respite programs.

Join the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. Your support will assist them in providing aid not only to your friend or relative but also to other AD caregivers like them. Typical chapter programs and services include a telephone hotline, support groups, a Safe Return program for those who wander, training for family and professional caregivers, a newsletter and a resource library. Membership also makes a thoughtful gift for the caregiver, connecting them to a key resource.

Watch for signs of trouble. Encourage the caregiver to seek help from their primary physician or a mental health worker if they feel overwhelmed or hopeless (possible signs of depression), or if they start to fear for their safety or that of their relative.

Stand by the caregiver. Be an ongoing source of encouragement. Support them if they make the difficult decision to pursue placement in a long-term care facility, and do what you can to help them and their relative with the transition.

Petsche is a clinical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in family life and elder care issues.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014