Friday, October 30, 2015

Alzheimer's Caregivers Need Caring Too

It was 2007 when I observed my wife’s first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).  In 2009, Clare was officially diagnosed with early or young onset AD and by 2010 Clare’s decline had progressed to the point where I could no longer leave her alone.  I became her 24/7 caregiver.  Sometime in 2011, however, I realized that I needed some respite time.  Initially I enrolled Clare in a day care program for 4 hours a day, once day a week, but eventually that grew to 22 hours of day care each week.  Other than those 22 hours, I was with Clare for almost every second of every day, and all of my needs were placed on the proverbial back burner. 

Clare was my #1 priority and anything I needed or wanted to do for myself that couldn’t get done during those hours of respite time just didn’t get done.  When Clare’s needs were such that I had to place her in the dementia unit of an assisted living facility (ALF) in September, 2013, I slowly but surely morphed from 24/7 caregiver to 24/7 advocate.  Clare’s ALF is now responsible for Clare’s activities of daily living except when she accompanies me outside of the ALF, so I no longer view my role mainly as her caregiver.  I now see my role mainly as Clare’s advocate, making sure that she is receiving the best possible care in her ALF.

Clare remains my #1 priority.  However, unlike those years when I was her 24/7 caregiver, I am now able to do almost anything I want or need to do each day.  The daily time I spend with Clare remains sacrosanct, unless I am not home and unable to visit with Clare.  (I have recently started taking occasional weeklong trips to visit our son and family in Michigan.)  But whether home or away, I am now able to take much better care of myself in ways I simply could not do before.  Daily advocacy has its stress, but nothing like the stress of daily caregiving.

Unfortunately, too many caregivers often sacrifice their own care when they are responsible for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.  I know that was true of me, and I know that was true of everyone else in my Alzheimer’s spouse support group. 

Caregivers give up personal care
Once I could not leave Clare alone anymore, golf was one of the first things that went out the window.  Our daughter volunteered to be with Clare while I went golfing on the weekend, but I felt guilty being away from home for so long.  I also knew that Clare wanted to be with me, not our daughter, so I couldn’t even enjoy my golf.  After going twice, I thanked our daughter but I put my golf clubs away.  Other hobbies and interests also ended once I had to be with Clare all the time.

Every caregiver gives up some favorite activities as the price of being a full-time caregiver.  Even simple “home activities” often go out the window.  For example, at a certain point I could not do anything at home by myself if Clare was awake.  She would sit and watch TV all day long, and if I weren’t sitting next to her she would get up, find me, and hover next to me until I joined her on the couch. 

It’s a lot more, though, than just giving up favorite activities or hobbies.  Many caregivers put off their own health needs if they interfere with their caregiving responsibilities.   In my situation, I had severe left hip and leg pain and had to walk with a cane for nearly a year.  I was walking so “lopsided” to try to reduce the hip pain that my left knee was aching and my leg was swollen.   However, I waited to deal with this pain until after Clare was admitted to her ALF so I knew that she would be well cared for if I needed hospitalization.  Unfortunately, I had put off dealing with my hip pain for so long that by the time I went to the orthopedic surgeon, my left hip was bone on bone.  All the cartilage was gone and I needed complete hip replacement surgery, followed by rehabilitation therapy.  Some caregivers in my support group scheduled chemo sessions for cancer when their spouses were in day care programs, not because it was the best time for their chemo but because it was the only time their spouses would not be impacted. 

Caregivers are prone to experiencing personal health issues
All caregivers for loved ones with Alzheimer’s deal with many of the same issues, but not all are the same for everyone.  For some, their major stress may come from having to deal with a major personality change in their loved one.  A person with Alzheimer’s may suddenly become verbally abusive or physically aggressive, even trying to physically harm their caregivers.  For some caregivers, being asked the same question over and over and over again (I used to refer to this as Clare’s “groundhog day loop’), or constantly having to search their house for missing or misplaced objects, or the inability of their loved ones to follow even the simplest one-step direction are their major causes of daily stress.

For some caregivers, their major stress results from having to not only deal with Alzheimer’s, but also having to cope with their loved ones having complications arising from other diseases such as diabetes or Parkinson’s.  Just lifting a loved one into and out of a bed, chair, or sofa, let alone into or out of a wheelchair can become too difficult.  Trying to transport that person and helping that person and then having to then lift that wheelchair into and out of a car can become a major issue.  And for increasing numbers of caregivers, their greatest stressors come from the financial side of Alzheimer’s ... worries about how to pay for aides or companions to stay with their loved ones at home, or day care programs, let alone the high costs of long term assisted living or nursing home placements. 

Daily stress and/or anxiety and/or depression caused by these and other matters can be devastating to a caregiver’s health.  It has been estimated that as many as 40% of Alzheimer’s caregivers may be suffering from depression.  Many caregivers suddenly find themselves having to deal with the effects of high blood pressure, weight gain or loss due to newly developed poor eating habits, stress headaches, or difficulties sleeping.  And many caregivers simply find themselves in a continuous state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion at the end of every day. 

It is not unusual to learn that caregivers are spending some of their limited “respite time” in doctors’ offices to receive check-ups followed by medications for various ailments that are a direct result of the effects of their caregiving.  And it is also not unusual for caregivers to see a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist for help to get them through all of their daily anxiety and/or stress and/or depression.  Whether it is postponing treatment for a medical condition, having to take new medication, or engaging in some form of therapy, most caregivers find their health impacted by the daily care they provide for their loved ones.

How caregivers can take better care their own needs
I know of no ways to completely eliminate the daily stress that caregivers find themselves facing when placing the needs of their loved ones ahead of their own.   But there are some steps that caregivers can take to reduce some of their daily stress and increase possibilities for taking better care of themselves:

1. Find at least some respite time each week.  For me, initially, I found respite time by placing Clare in day care programs.  For others it is hiring part-time health aides or companions who stay with loved ones in their homes.  For some it is a dependence upon a trusted friend or relative to provide some weekly respite relief.  But some way, somehow, caregivers must find ways to provide themselves with at least some respite time to do what they need to do by themselves each week.  This is when caregivers can place their needs first for a few hours each week.  Once I placed Clare in her ALF, of course, respite time has become a non-issue for me.  I now have all the available time I need to take care of my own personal health needs, despite having Clare remain as my #1 priority.

2. Consider temporary week-long respite placements.  Many ALFs and other health or long term care facilities allow a person with Alzheimer’s to reside there for up to one week at a reasonable cost to provide temporary respite for caregivers.  Facilities may do this to entice caregivers into considering full-time residential placement there for their loved ones somewhere down the line, or simply to fill up empty bed space.  Regardless of the facility’s motive, if there is a suitable place near where you live that would give you a week all to yourself, then you should look into this as a possibility for respite.  I know caregivers who regularly take advantage of such programs to literally “get away” to visit friends or relatives and avoid daily caregiving responsibilities so they can “recharge their batteries.”

3. Pamper yourself at least once each week.  Some caregivers go for manicures and pedicures during respite time to get their minds temporarily off of caregiving, or go out to a movie theatre, or to a library or park to read a good book in peace and quiet without any distractions.  For me, writing articles for publication during my respite time enabled me to take care of many of my emotional needs.  Writing allows me to vent my emotions and feelings.  After completing each article, even if battling tears while writing, I feel better.  After my articles are published and I receive feedback from readers, it feels good to learn that I may be helping others through my writing.  To this day I still find emotional release through writing, and more and more I am enjoying my correspondence with fellow caregivers who comment on my articles.  Whatever works, all caregivers should try to find something that will reduce their stress on a regular basis.

4.  Engage in some physical activity on a regular basis.  Virtually all doctors recommend physical activity as a way to reduce stress.  Walking is as basic as it comes, and a daily walk or any regular exercise would probably help many caregivers with diet and sleep issues as well.  I was working out a few times a week while Clare was in day care programs until my hip/leg pain prevented me from doing so.  After my surgery and rehab I returned to working out on a regular basis.

5. Relaxation techniques help many caregivers.  Although I never tried these techniques, some caregivers report that they meditate for at least 15 minutes every day, or do tai chi or some other relaxation exercise to reduce their daily stress.  Anything  that is legal and helps a caregiver relax is probably helpful!

6.  Visit your doctor.  Caregivers feeling the effects of stress, anxiety, or depression ... if not eating well, not sleeping well, experiencing muscle pains or tightness, suffering from headaches, back aches, or feeling mentally, physically or emotionally drained each day ... must make time to see a doctor.  Caring for a person with Alzheimer’s can easily lead to health issues for caregivers.  A doctor may be able to suggest some diet, exercise, or treatment that caregivers can do during respite time or when loved ones are asleep.  Doctors may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medication, or the name of a helpful therapist.  At the very least, if not already doing so, caregivers should be sure to make time for an annual physical exam when blood pressure can be monitored.  An annual physical exam will also insure that caregivers have the opportunity, in a timely manner, to receive proper vaccinations and any additional testing that a doctor feels is needed.

The bottom line for caregivers
Most caregivers will always place the needs of their loved ones ahead of their own.  One would expect this to be true for caregivers in a loving relationship with the person who has AD, but this is also often true even for caregivers who did not have a particularly loving relationship with the person who has AD.  Those who resent having to spend time as caregivers still often place that person’s needs ahead of their own due to feelings of guilt, or from a sense of duty grounded in religious or ethical reasons outside the realm of love.

For whatever reason, caregivers placing the needs of a person with Alzheimer’s ahead of their own must find time to attend to their own needs as best they can.  Caregivers need to always be mindful that if they “go down,” who will be there to take care of their loved ones?  That is why all caregivers, whether loving or resentful, must also learn to care for their own needs.  Alzheimer’s caregivers need caring just as much as people with Alzheimer’s need caring.

Published in AFA Care Quarterly, Fall 2015, pp. 8-10.   Access at:

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

From Caregiver to Advocate

 (Original submission, "Advocating for a Loved One in Assisted Living Facilities")

Morphing from Caregiver to Advocate
My wife, Clare, has Alzheimer’s disease and is midway through her second year in an Assisted Living Residence (ALR) that has mostly assisted living residents, but also has a separate lockdown unit for people like Clare.  Clare’s unit has separate hourly activity programming throughout the day, but residents from Clare’s unit are also sometimes brought to join non-dementia residents for special programs both on and off site. 

Because Clare’s unit is specifically designed for people with dementia, aides provide her with all of her medications at the proper times, she is helped with many of her Activities of Daily Living and is generally very well cared for from the time she wakes up until she goes to sleep at night.  I would rate Clare’s ALR as an A+ facility both in terms of programs and services provided on a daily basis, and in terms of caring personnel.  However, even in the best ALRs there will be days when one or more staff members fail to do their jobs properly, or facility management is not up to snuff, and this is when the role of the caregiver as an advocate can become crucial.

Even though I visit her daily, I now depend upon Clare’s ALR to take care of caregiver responsibilities.  I am more advocate than caregiver now to ensure that Clare receives the high quality of care she should have each day.  Fortunately, most of the time there is nothing to advocate for because all is well.  But when problems do arise, if I were not there to advocate on Clare’s behalf, change might not happen.  I may see Clare wearing the same clothing several days in a row, or personal hygiene issues that have been neglected, or there may be occasional food issues.  Fortunately, the ALR executive directors have been receptive to my occasional complaints and have taken action to swiftly remedy problems brought to their attention.  I have learned that there are several steps a caregiver-advocate can take to facilitate change when necessary:

A 5-step plan to bring problems to the attention of ALR administrators:
 1.  Determine whether the problem is a personal issue dealing with your loved one, or an overall ALR facility issue.  An example of a personal issue would be noticing that your loved one is not being dressed in clothing appropriate for that day’s weather.  A facility issue would be that a scheduled activity is not taking place.

2.  Try first to resolve the matter with a lower level administrator.  For example, notify the dementia unit director or the recreation director or the dining director of the problem you are trying to address.

3.  If the problem is initially resolved but then resurfaces, or is not resolved at all,
it is time to make an appointment with the facility manager in charge.  Top administrators are very busy people and they deserve the courtesy of a scheduled appointment.  Similarly, when making the appointment, indicate the problem that you want to discuss so the manager can be better prepared for your meeting.

4.  Write down what you want to say at your meeting.  Even if you don’t read what you wrote, you can refer to your notes if necessary to make sure you have stated the problem accurately.  Tell the top manager who you have already met with and what has already been done to try to resolve the problem, and exactly what you want the top administrator to do.

5.  After your meeting, follow up with either a thank-you note or email.  Should the problem continue, however, follow up with another note or email to indicate that the problem is continuing.

It is important to remain calm at all meetings with ALR administrators, and to be patient afterwards.  Screaming and shouting may allow a caregiver-advocate to vent emotions, but it often makes it difficult for administrators to be receptive to what you are asking them to do.  If a personal issue, the administrator may need a few days to resolve the problem.  If a facility issue, it may take several weeks because institutions are generally resistant to change. 

What you can expect
I have taken these same five steps at Clare’s ALR and have met with success on every occasion.  That does not mean that problems which have been resolved won’t resurface again.  But it does mean that Clare’s care is better and my visits to her facility are more enjoyable because of my advocacy.  Top administrators will usually do all that they can to ensure not having to meet repeatedly with caregiver-advocates over the same matters.  ALR administrators want happy and satisfied caregiver-advocates who will speak well of their ALR to others.  Positive word-of-mouth is one of the best ways for an ALR to continue to grow its potential new client list. 

If you want a problem addressed and your meetings with administrators do not lead to positive change within a reasonable amount of time, ask to meet again with that same administrator.  If necessary, continue meeting until the problem is addressed properly.  One characteristic that separates effective from ineffective advocates is persistence.   As a last resort, ask to see if the facility has an “ombudsman” who may be able to help resolve problems.

But whatever you do, do not give up.  Just as you did when you were a 24/7 caregiver, you must now do all you can for your loved one as a 24/7 advocate.  Regardless of how wonderful that ALR ... or nursing home or hospice setting ... may be, no one will care about your loved one as much as you do.  So advocate relentlessly!

Published in Today's Caregiver.   March-April, 2015.  Access at: marapr15/#/?=26.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Letter to the Editor: Pessimistic about Alzheimer's news

Newsday editorial of 3/22/15 and my Letter to the Editor ...
March 22, 2015 by THE EDITORIAL BOARD
Alzheimer's Researchers and their Hopeful News
Lately there's been a lot of hopeful news about that most hopeless of diseases, Alzheimer's. There's a new $100-million global fund forming to speed up research into new treatments and a cure for dementia. The money comes from the British government, five drugmakers and an Alzheimer's charity.
Dementia affects 47 million people and is projected to affect 100 million by 2030 and 150 million by 2050 as the global population ages.
But maybe that epidemic won't materialize. A projection made in 1920 of how many people would die of polio or pneumonia by 2015 wouldn't have allowed for the vaccines and antibiotics that lay ahead. Also, drugmaker Biogen Idec reported last week that an Alzheimer's drug it's working on sharply slowed the decline of Alzheimer's patients in a clinical trial. Last year a Stanford University study found a way to stop, and even reverse, dementia in mice. And Australian researchers recently discovered a method of reversing dementia in mice entirely different from the one the Stanford researchers are pursuing.
To project huge future problems like an Alzheimer's epidemic in 2050 is to assume we must face tomorrow's problems using only today's technology and treatment. Thankfully, that's not the case.

My letter to the editor:  My letter in response to this editorial was published online on Friday, 3/27/15 and in print on 3/29/15.  Their editor titled my letter, "Pessimistic about Alzheimer's news."  

Pessimistic about Alzheimer's news
Newsday’s editorial of 3/23/15, “Alzheimer’s researchers and their hopeful news,” is incredibly na├»ve.  The article reports on recent studies showing promising results on mice or with small human populations that could lead to a future with fewer people living with and dying from Alzheimer’s.  I, too, wish for that future.  However, the sad reality is that promising results with mice or even with small human populations have been reported many times before without being successfully duplicated in larger Phase III clinical trial testing.  Let’s wait to see if positive results can be duplicated in a Phase III clinical trial with at least 1000 or more participants before getting too excited about the latest Alzheimer’s treatment being tested.  Newsday’s editorial also cited a recent $100 million global fund for Alzheimer’s research as a positive sign.  $100 million may sound like a serious investment to help end Alzheimer’s, but when compared to President Obama’s most recent budget request for more than $8 billion for combined domestic and global HIV research, $100 million is the proverbial drop in the bucket.  Each year our National Institutes of Health allocate at least six times more money for research on HIV/AIDS, a disease which can already be successfully prevented and treated, then it does on Alzheimer’s, which has no means of prevention or effective treatment.  An estimated 700,000 Americans will die from Alzheimer’s this year, compared to about 15,000 dying from HIV/AIDS.  Newsday should be calling upon our federal government to re-order its funding priorities. 

Allan S. Vann, Commack
Editor's note: The writer is a caregiver to his wife, who has Alzheimer's disease, and writes frequently on the topic.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

An Alzheimer's Spouse ... Married, yet Widowed

I first noticed signs of concern during a wonderful post-retirement trip to Europe in the fall of 2006.  My wife, Clare, was exhibiting behaviors I had never seen before and I was worried.  Clare was misplacing and losing objects in restaurants and hotels.  She was forgetting basic information, such as how many children and grandchildren we have.  She was describing trips to countries we had never visited.  And despite always having an excellent sense of direction, Clare was now getting us lost on a daily basis.  When we returned home, I went online to several reputable websites and discovered that all of these behaviors were early warning signs of mild cognitive impairment and/or Alzheimer’s disease (AD).  Although Clare denied having any problems, I convinced her to see a neurologist.  She saw no need to do so, but agreed to do so to “ease my mind.” 

I shared my observations with the doctor on our first visit and he asked Clare many questions.  He then had an assistant give her a quick cognitive screening test and Clare received a near perfect score.  The doctor told us not to worry ... that everything I had observed was probably due to the stress of our very active early retirement and all of our travel, and he suggested some ways for Clare to lessen her stress.  

One year later I was now observing even more behaviors that worried me.  I raised my concerns with our internist at our annual physical exams.  He administered a cognitive screening test and Clare again received a near perfect score.  His diagnosis was mild depression and he placed Clare on anti-depressant medication.  Clare took this medication only briefly, however, due to side effects.  However, I remained fairly certain that Clare was suffering from mild cognitive impairment if not already in the early stages of AD, despite what our doctor had said.

In the early fall of 2008, we returned to the neurologist.  By this time I was keeping weekly logs of Clare’s worsening symptoms and new troublesome behaviors, and I shared these logs with the doctor.  I noted how Clare kept asking me the same question over and over without any recollection of having just asked me that same question minutes earlier.  I indicated that Clare’s aphasia was getting worse, and how she also was experiencing frequent agnosia, often unable to ”see” objects that were literally right in front of her.  I told the doctor that Clare was forgetting how to do things she used to do routinely on the computer, and had lost interest in hobbies she had previously enjoyed.  She was also getting lost while driving in our community.

The neurologist ordered more comprehensive testing this time ... more cognitive testing, complete blood work, and a brain scan.  When we met with him to review all the test results, he indicated that whereas he saw no evidence of early stages of Alzheimer’s, he did see a negative change in her cognitive testing.  However, he still strongly felt that Clare was basically fine and he could see no definitive signs of AD.  He said that Clare’s memory issues and some aphasia that surfaced on the tests were probably due to anxiety and he placed Clare on anti-anxiety medication. 

By winter, Clare’s symptoms were worsening, despite the latest medication.  I asked Clare to let me find another neurologist for a second opinion, but she adamantly refused.  I tried to convince Clare that, according to any reputable website I had consulted, her symptoms were not due to stress, anxiety, or depression.  Clare, however, insisted that there was nothing really wrong with her and that the current neurologist had said words to that effect.  So, we returned to that same neurologist’s and this time Clare’s results on cognitive testing were extremely poor.  The surprised neurologist now issued a diagnosis of severe cognitive impairment due to depression, and arranged for Clare to meet weekly with a cognitive psychologist.  He also strongly suggested a series of individual cognitive fitness training sessions offered by an assistant for an additional fee in his office that could begin in about 3 months, and said that all of this, along with some new medication, should result in Clare’s symptoms improving a great deal within 6 months. 

After 3 months of weekly visits with the cognitive psychologist, and one week before Clare’s cognitive training sessions were scheduled to begin, Clare’s symptoms continued to worsen further.  I confronted the psychologist in Clare’s presence and asked if he were in my position with his wife, wouldn’t he take his wife to another doctor for a second opinion?  Thankfully, he indicated that he would, and I turned to Clare and asked, “So now can we get a second opinion?”

Clare reluctantly agreed and I told her that I had researched three new doctors, two neurologists and one geriatric psychiatrist.  In the spring of 2009 we met with a geriatric psychiatrist associated with a hospital-affiliated Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.  Before that first testing session was even completed, the doctor told me that whereas it was too soon to tell if Clare had AD, her problems were definitely not due to stress, anxiety, or depression and he wanted her off all of that medication.  After much more testing over the course of the next few months, Clare was diagnosed with early/young onset AD.  She had just turned 63.

In 2011, as Clare’s AD continued to worsen, I started her in a social model day care program one day each week.  By 2013, Clare was attending day care programs four times per week.  It was becoming increasingly clear to me that I would soon no longer be able to properly care for Clare by myself at home.  Prior to retirement we had discussed our preferences should either of us ever need long term care, and we both decided we’d prefer placement in a facility rather than hiring 24/7 aides for our home.  In September, 2013, Clare was admitted into an Assisted Living Residence (ALR) dementia wing.  My role then changed from being Clare’s 24/7 caregiver to her daily part-time caregiver and her full-time advocate.

Clare has become more and more confused, frail, and dependent upon others since placement.  Except for music, her short and long term memory have basically vanished.  On most days she is unable to recognize our children and grandchildren, but Clare still knows me, recognizes me as her husband, and misses me when I am not there.  However, on one recent occasion she has kissed a male ALR resident on the lips and given him a good night hug thinking he was me.

Clare and I were very fortunate to experience a “fairy tale” marriage.  We met right after our sophomore year of college, became engaged during our junior year, and married a week after graduation.  We had been best friends before our marriage and have been best friends and deeply in love ever since.  However, due to Clare’s worsening AD, we obviously no longer have the same relationship we once had.  In many respects, our relationship now is more akin to parent/child rather than husband/wife.  I visit with Clare each day but we can no longer talk about anything for more than a few seconds before she gets very confused.  I miss not having conversations with Clare.  We can no longer play games, travel, or engage in sports together.  We can no longer share virtually any of the activities we used to engage in together.  I miss all of that, too.  But each day we find time to hug, cuddle, and kiss ... often on the couch while watching TV in one of the ALR’s many lounges ... and still see musicals in neighborhood theatres and take walks at a nearby beach when the weather cooperates.

I still love Clare deeply and she still loves me just as much.  That will never change.  But aside from no longer being able to share and discuss matters or participate in most activities together anymore, we have not had a fulfilling sexual relationship in many years.  And, as Clare fades faster and faster, I know that it won’t be long before Clare no longer recognizes me or knows who I am with certainty.  In many respects, it is as if I am now already widowed.

I have reached the stage where so many Alzheimer’s spouses find themselves ... married, yet widowed at the same time.  My best friend for nearly 50 years, my lifelong partner, my lover, my wife, my children’s mother ... all of these roles have already faded or are fading rapidly.  I am learning to do more things by myself, alone in a house we had lived in together for forty years.  Going to sleep in an empty bed was incredibly difficult that first night after Clare was placed.  It’s now well more than a year after Clare’s placement and coming home to an empty house and an empty bed is still difficult.  Doing everything by myself that we once did together is also very difficult at times.  I still find myself crying at my loss ... at our loss ... of the once bright future we had as young retirees that came to such an abrupt and premature end due to Alzheimer’s.

I miss all of the social, emotional, and physical parts of our once close relationship.  A lot.  But while Clare is still able to tell me she loves me, even if unable to function as my wife, how can I “be with” another woman without feeling tremendously guilty?  I’m human and still in my 60s ... I have physical desires.  Ironically, I can still have sex with Clare.  Although she has had absolutely no interest in having sex for several years ... and, in fact, will giggle like a child if I hold her in a “private place” ... she will still do anything for me much like a child wants to please a parent.  Yet were I to take advantage of her willingness to please me, I would feel like I’m taking advantage of her, not enjoying mutual sex. 

I still love Clare so much, and she still loves me so much, so how can I “date” another woman for companionship, let alone go to bed with and have a physical relationship with another woman, while Clare is still alive? 

I am an Alzheimer’s spouse.  I am married to the love of my life, but except for a few hours each day I am living completely apart from my wife knowing that her AD will worsen more and more until certain death.  I now live most of my life as a single man.  In a very real sense, I am already widowed.  I am an Alzheimer’s spouse ... married, yet widowed, at the same time.

Published in AFA Care Quarterly, Spring, 2015, pp. 13-14.  Access at:

Friday, March 6, 2015

Caring for Alzheimer's Patients in the ED

(Author's note:  The editor changed all ER references to ED, referring to Emergency Department instead of Emergency Room, in the actual published version.)

What ER staff should know about people with Alzheimer’s
My wife has Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and lives in the dementia unit of an assisted living residential facility.  She has been admitted to a hospital Emergency Room (ER) several times within the past year.  For a person with AD, the ambulance ride itself can be very unsettling.  But then being transferred to a hospital gurney, changed into a hospital gown, lying beneath bright lights and hearing the sounds of nearby people screaming and the sounds of machines beeping, being poked and prodded by many different and unfamiliar doctors and nurses ... all of this can be very scary to a person with Alzheimer’s.  In addition to these disorienting and frightening experiences, painful needles for requisite blood work or injections, and being wheeled into other rooms for various testing procedures, often cause additional confusion for the Alzheimer’s patient.

All of this sensory overload, overstimulation, and confusion may easily exacerbate whatever condition initially led to ER admittance.  Already very confused and emotionally fragile, often so cognitively impaired that nothing that is happening and nothing that is being said by a doctor, nurse or technician makes any sense, a person with AD must be treated with extra care by ER personnel.

ER staff must modify their techniques to gain helpful information
ER personnel often ask patients to tell them their name and date of birth, and to describe the intensity of their pain on a 1-10 scale, or to describe the pain as sharp, moderate, or dull.  But asking such questions to someone with AD will usually be futile and lead to greater anxiety and even more confusion.  Asking AD patients to place a hand on the part of the body that is hurting, for example, is more effective than asking the patient where it hurts.  After learning where the pain is located, the doctor may then apply pressure around that identified area while asking the AD patient if it hurts more or less, here or there.  Simply observing the patient’s face when applying pressure to a painful area will often let a doctor know just where the pain is most intense.

Don’t forget the caregiver ... and be aware of sundowning
If the AD patient’s primary caregiver is present, ER personnel should immediately ask that caregiver for information.  Aside from giving the patient’s complete name and date of birth, the caregiver may be able shed more light on the reason for ER admittance, provide valuable patient health history along with a list of all of the patient’s medications, and note whether or not the patient has had food or daily medication by the time of admittance.  This latter information can be crucial because if AD patients have not yet taken their daily medication or have not eaten in a long time, more confusion may develop that can complicate a diagnosis. 

ER personnel also need to learn that many AD patients will “sundown” as the day wears on, growing even more confused about where they are and why.  The longer it takes ER personnel to administer and analyze tests for someone with Alzheimer’s, the greater the chance for sundowning.  During my wife’s ER visits, she was not allowed to eat, drink, or take her daily medication until all testing was completed and results were interpreted.  However, this often took many hours and the lengthy “wait time” led to my wife becoming more fatigued, confused, anxious, and disoriented.  She refused to use a bed pan and I had to restrain her from leaving her gurney to go to the bathroom.  She also kept trying to remove the needles and IV hook-up from her arm.  But each time I told ER personnel that my wife was sundowning and they needed to complete and analyze testing quickly so she could at least take her medications and eat, I was told that I needed to continue to wait patiently.  I was able to wait patiently ... but my wife was not!

Preparing for the future
With more than 5 million people in this country already dealing with AD, and with that number expected to increase to 15 million by 2050, ER personnel will be treating increasing numbers of fragile elderly patients who are confused and unable to communicate effectively.  ER personnel must become more aware of the characteristics of people with AD to be able to diagnose and treat the causes for their ER visits more quickly and effectively. 

When ER personnel diagnose an Alzheimer’s patient, chances of making a proper diagnosis will increase if ER staff modify their patient questioning techniques and seek assistance of caregivers if they are present.  And if additional testing is ordered, ER staff must make a greater effort to minimize the wait time for such testing and test analysis.

Published on website of  Emergency Medicine News on March 5, 2015 in advance of publication in Emergency Medical enews on 3/25/15.  Access online only at:

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Caregiver's Perspective on ALR Care for People with Dementia

Some brief background
I first observed some of the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s in my wife, Clare, when she was 60 years old.  However, Clare wasn’t formally diagnosed with early or young onset Alzheimer’s until she turned 63 in the spring of 2009.  That summer, we both joined weekly support groups facilitated by social workers at the Long Island Alzheimer’s Foundation (LIAF).  Clare met with others who were in early to moderate stages of Alzheimer’s in one room, while I met with their spouses in another room.  

A dozen people attended our weekly LIAF support group meetings when I joined, but within a year or two we had as many as 16 spouses attending every week.  Of that group, only two continue to attend.  Whereas I no longer go to those weekly support group meetings, many of our original members have remained close.  In fact, quite a few of us continue to meet for lunch once a week at a restaurant that is only blocks away from where our support groups met a few years ago.  We are all there for each other and continue, in many ways, to function as a support group.

As we begin the year 2015, 11 of our original 16 members have lost our spouses.  Of the five remaining members whose spouses are still alive, one spouse receives home health care, 3 are in lockdown dementia units of Assisted Living Residences, and one is in a V.A. nursing home.  Since Alzheimer’s is a terminal disease with no means of effective treatment or cure, all Alzheimer’s spouses understand that it is only a matter of time before widowhood.

Caregiver concerns about ALRs
I am one of the spouses whose loved one lives in an ALR.  Clare is in a safe and secure environment, is happy most of the time, and receives good care.  Needless to say, our lunch group’s weekly discussions often involve “updates” on our spouses ... as well as updates on how those already widowed are getting on with their lives. 
Generally, one hears mostly good things about the care our loved ones received prior to their deaths, or are currently receiving in their residential placements. 

However, we also hear of some concerns about ALRs and the reasons for all of our complaints can easily be summarized as follows: There is a lack of sufficient training for those who work with Alzheimer’s residents, and there is insufficient oversight and supervision of these aides.

The vast majority of aides in residential placement facilities are very caring individuals with lots of patience.  The vast majority do their jobs properly day in and day out.  I am very pleased almost all of the time with the care Clare receives each day from her various aides.  But there have been occasions when aides have failed to help Clare with her Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), even though those expectations for aides are written in Clare’s Individual Service Plan (ISP).  For example, there have been days when Clare was not helped with shampooing her hair when showering, not reminded to and how to brush her teeth, not helped with application of body lotion, and not helped with getting dressed leading to Clare’s wearing the same outfit several days in a row. 

Clare’s bedroom closet is kept locked and only the aides have access.  Yet, too many times I have found Clare’s recently laundered clothing lying in a pile on the closet floor and mixed in with dirty clothing.  Too many times someone else’s blouses and pants have somehow made it into Clare’s closet and Clare has been dressed in other residents’ clothing.  (All of Clare’s clothing has her name clearly marked on a label.)  And I have found Clare dressed totally inappropriately for that day’s weather on too many occasions when I have come to visit.

In the scheme of things, I suppose one could say that all of these incidents I have described are relatively minor.  And I would agree.  There have been very few major untoward incidents, such as mix-ups with medication.  But minor incidents, or “glitches,” have continued to re-occur again and again.

ALR training and management needs
Based upon my visits with Clare in her ALR dementia unit, and after numerous meetings with various ALR directors, and after many discussions with fellow spouse caregivers who are or have been in similar situations, I feel that there are two reasons for repetitive minor glitches in an otherwise A+ facility:  Lack of sufficient ongoing staff training, and absence of supervision and ongoing staff evaluation during morning and evening hours. 

Management at Clare’s ALR sets very high expectations for dementia unit aides, and that is as it should be.  However, if management is absent, how can aides be held responsible if they do not meet these high expectations?  If ALRs do not have managers onsite in the early morning hours or in the late evenings when aides are supposed to be working closely with residents on their ADLs, how can ALR management be sure that their high expectations and standards for care are being met?  The short answer to this question is, they cannot!

Management must invest the time and money to provide supervision of aides not just during normal daytime and afternoon hours, but also during the times when aides are assisting dementia residents with their ADLs in the mornings and evenings.  Aides need to be observed and evaluated on a daily basis.  Training must be provided to aides on an ongoing basis both to review management’s standards and expectations, and to review particular issues with each individual dementia resident.  After retraining, if any aide is still not meeting high standards and expectations, that aide should be terminated.

Each time management has provided retraining to aides in Clare’s ALR, there has been a noticeable improvement in quality for a period of time.  However, whereas staff retraining focuses on general standards and expectations, staff responsible for assisting residents with ADLs must also be reminded on a regular basis of each individual resident’s particular needs.  Each resident has an ISP and I have been told that a copy of each resident’s ISP is in the office and “accessible” to all staff.  But it is unrealistic to expect aides to periodically review resident ISPs in the office during the day. 

With the possible exception of a few extremely conscientious aides, in my experience reviewing each resident’s ISP just does not happen.  I know this for a fact since there have been so many instances of my asking aides why this or that has not been done for Clare and they have told me they were unaware of this or that having to be done, or that no one ever told them to do that ... despite this or that clearly noted in Clare’s ISP “accessible” in their office.

One possible suggestion for better meeting each resident’s personal needs
In addition to maintaining a file of ISPs in the office, it would seem helpful if there would be a posting in each resident’s room of a copy of relevant pages from that resident’s ISP about assistance needed while in that room ... information about dressing, showering, hygiene, etc.  Such a posting would enable aides to quickly refresh their knowledge of each resident’s needs on a regular basis.  Aides could scan information in check-off columns on an ISP in seconds and be up to speed on the degree of assistance residents need in their rooms.  Or, perhaps, a posted index card in each resident’s bedroom could list just 2 or 3 important reminders about that resident’s ADL needs re hygiene or dressing. 

A simple file box in the dining room with one file card on each resident would also inform aides about particular dining needs of each resident.  Such cards would allow new aides or aides who don’t usually work closely with some residents to become more familiar with each resident’s specific needs.  For example, Clare is supposed to be given a grilled cheese sandwich if she won’t eat her regular meal.  But on several instances when new aides were working in the dining room, Clare had not eaten dinner when I arrived and no aide knew that the protocol was to give her a grilled cheese sandwich.  Was that information written on Clare’s ISP?  Yes.  Had any of those aides read her ISP?  No.  A file box in the dining room with just a note or two about residents might be very helpful, especially for new aides or aides filling on an emergency basis. 

More ongoing training and management oversight is needed
Absent of ongoing training and supervision, and absent of the presence of full-time management, most ALR aides will continue to do an excellent job most of the time.  But “most” of the time should not be the acceptable standard.  The only acceptable standard should be that all aides do an excellent job all of the time.  Pertinent information on each resident should be readily accessible to all aides in the areas where that information will do the most good ... in each resident’s bedroom/bathroom, and in the dining room.

But in order for excellence to be the norm, staff training and retraining must be planned and provided on an ongoing basis throughout the year.  Aides need to be periodically reminded of standard and expectations.  Aides need to be periodically reminded of personal issues with individual residents.  And aides must be observed and supervised when implementing ISPs during morning and evening hours.  All too often there is no full-time management presence when aides are supposed to be assisting residents with their ADLs in early morning and late evening hours. 

Published in Annals of Long-Term Care, Vol. 23, No.1, January, 2015.  Access online only at