Alzheimer’s disease has an unusual distinction: It’s the illness that Americans fear most — more than cancer, stroke or heart disease.
The rhetoric surrounding Alzheimer’s reflects this. People “fade away” and are tragically “robbed of their identities” as this incurable condition progresses, we’re told time and again.
Yet, a sizable body of research suggests this Alzheimer’s narrative is mistaken. It finds that people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia retain a sense of self and have a positive quality of life, overall, until the illness’s final stages.
They appreciate relationships. They’re energized by meaningful activities and value opportunities to express themselves. And they enjoy feeling at home in their surroundings.
“Do our abilities change? Yes. But inside we’re the same people,” said John Sandblom, 57, of Ankeny, Iowa, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s seven years ago.
Dr. Peter Rabins, a psychiatrist and co-author of “The 36-Hour Day,” a guide for Alzheimer patients’ families, summarized research findings this way: “Overall, about one-quarter of people with dementia report a negative quality of life, although that number is higher in people with severe disease.”
“I’ve learned something from this,” admitted Rabins, a professor at the University of Maryland. “I’m among the people who would have thought, ‘If anything happens to my memory, my ability to think, I can’t imagine anything worse.’
“But I’ve seen that you can be a wonderful grandparent and not remember the name of the grandchild you adore. You can be with people you love and enjoy them, even if you’re not following the whole conversation.”
The implication: Promoting well-being is both possible and desirable in people with dementia, even as people struggle with memory loss, slower cognitive processing, distractibility and other symptoms.
“There are many things that caregivers, families and friends can do — right now — to improve people’s lives,” said Dr. Allen Power, author of “Dementia Beyond Disease: Enhancing Well-Being” and chair for aging and dementia innovation at the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging in Canada.
Of course, the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia are enormously difficult, and resources to help caregivers are scarce — problems that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Still, up to 80 percent of people with dementia are in the mild and moderate stages. Here are some elements of their quality of life that should be attended to:
Focus On Health
One notable study analyzed lengthy discussions between people with dementia, caregivers and professionals at six meetings of Alzheimer’s Disease International, an association of Alzheimer’s societies across the world.
Those discussions emphasized the importance of physical health: being free from pain, well-fed, physically active and well-groomed, having continence needs met, being equipped with glasses and hearing aids and not being overmedicated. Cognitive health was also a priority. People wanted “cognitive rehabilitation” to help them learn practical techniques for promoting memory or compensating for memory loss.
Up to 40 percent of people with Alzheimer’s disease suffer from significant depression, and research by Rabins and colleagues underscores the importance of evaluating and offering treatment to someone who appears sad, apathetic and altogether disinterested in life.
Foster Social Connections
Being connected with and involved with other people is a high priority for people with dementia. Based on research conducted over several decades, Rabins listed social interaction as one of the five essential elements of a positive quality of life.
But fear, discomfort and misunderstanding routinely disrupt relationships once a diagnosis is revealed.
“The saddest thing that I hear, almost without exception, from people all over the world is that family, friends and acquaintances desert them,” said Sandblom, who runs a weekly online support group for Dementia Alliance International, an organization for people with dementia that he co-founded in January 2014.
Not knowing how to communicate with someone with dementia is a common problem.
Laura Gitlin, a dementia researcher and director of The Center for Innovative Care in Aging at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, offered these suggestions in an article in the International Encyclopedia of Rehabilitation: Speak slowly, simply and calmly, make one or two points at a time, allow someone sufficient time to respond, avoid the use of negative words, don’t argue, eliminate noise and distraction, make eye contact but don’t stare, and express affection by smiling, holding hands or giving a hug.
Also, understand that people with dementia perceive things differently.
“You have to understand that when you have dementia you lose a lot of your natural perceptions of what others are doing,” Sandblom said. “So, a lot of us get a little nervous or suspicious. I think that’s a natural human reaction to knowing that you’re not picking up on things very well.”
Address Unmet Needs
Needs that aren’t recognized or addressed can cause significant distress and a lower quality of life. Rather than treat the distress, Power suggested, try to understand the underlying cause and do something about it.
Which needs are commonly unmet? In a study published in 2013, Rabins and colleagues identified several: managing patients’ risk of falling (unmet almost 75 percent of the time); addressing health and medical concerns (unmet, 63 percent); engaging people in meaningful activities (53 percent); and evaluating homes so that they’re safe and made easier to navigate (45 percent).
Respect Autonomy And Individuality
Rabins called this “awareness of self” and listed it among the essential components of a positive quality of life. Sandblom called this “being seen as a whole person, not as my disease.”
At the Alzheimer’s Disease International meetings, people spoke of being listened to, valued and given choices that allowed them to express themselves. They said they wanted to be respected and have their spirituality recognized, not patronized, demeaned or infantilized.
In a review of 11 studies that asked people with dementia what was important to them, they said they wanted to experience autonomy and independence, feel accepted and understood, and not be overly identified with their illness.
None of this is easy. But strategies for understanding what people with dementia experience and addressing their needs can be taught. This should become a priority, Rabins said, adding that “improved quality of life should be a primary outcome of all dementia treatments.”
We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.
KHN’s coverage of end-of-life and serious illness issues is supported by The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, its coverage of aging and long-term care issues is supported by The SCAN Foundation and its coverage related to aging & improving care of older adults is supported by The John A. Hartford Foundation.