Memorial Health expert says holidays can be tough time for Alzheimer’s patients, caregivers

Health News

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — November marks Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month.

The debilitating brain disease is the most common type of dementia that impacts 5.2 million Americans, and a person develops Alzheimer’s every 68 seconds, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Thirty years from now, an American is expected to develop the incurable illness every 33 seconds.

Memorial Health geriatrician Dr. Maulik Patel says while some forms of dementia can present as early as between 40 and 50 years old, most cases are diagnosed when someone’s in their 60s, 70s or 80s.

“It’s usually a loved one or caregiver or someone that says ‘hey, I noticed this, and this just didn’t seem like them,’” Patel said.

“You know, folks who are really good at math, maybe they were a banker or an accountant, and now all of a sudden, they’re not able to balance a checkbook or not pay the bills,” he added. “Some things are just sort of glaringly not right, and then it’s upon us to make sure it’s not something that we can reverse.”

Reversible causes could be a vitamin deficiency or a metabolic abnormality, Patel said. “It’s a good idea to get it evaluated because it doesn’t always mean what we think it may mean.”

Virtual or in-person holiday gatherings may be a time for family members to observe any signs that Alzheimer’s could be affecting their elderly relatives. 

“A lot of times when people get together during these holidays is when people figure out maybe there’s something wrong with grandma or grandpa, or mom or dad, or brother or sister,” Patel said.

“They pick up on those subtle hints; ‘wait, you don’t remember what we ate last night for dinner?’ You don’t remember that we just did this last night?’” he said. 

“They start to make those pieces come together, so this month, commonly we pick out a lot of these symptoms and are able to make sure that our loved ones get the medical care and the attention they need,” he added.

The medical expert adds that amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and limited visitation at assisted living or senior care facilities, the holiday period can be especially difficult for caregivers and people living with Alzheimer’s disease.

However, how the holidays affect dementia patients can depend on how advanced their illness is, Patel says.

“For someone that has severe dementia, they’re not oriented to time, so it doesn’t change much about what’s going on,” he said. “What matters to them is whatever recognition that they still have; maybe they still recognize who their daughter is or who their son is, and for them to have that connection, it means a lot, so holiday time serves that purpose.”

In individuals with less severe cases of dementia, the expert says the holidays can be helpful in terms of breaking them out of their isolation.

“It helps them with triggering their memories and their good positive mood a lot of times,” Patel said, adding, “But with everything going on, the isolation for the elderly in general has been more difficult, and even more difficult on those with cognitive impairment, especially dementia, because they’re not getting that stimulus to really help them maintain the cognition like they would have otherwise.”

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends families continue safe holiday traditions with their loved ones diagnosed with the disease this year. 

Dropping off their favorite baked goods or a special care package in a socially distanced way, scheduling a holiday drive-by parade for a relative or planning an outdoor holiday visit are COVID-19-friendly options for holiday celebrations. 

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