Guest Column: Trends in Alzheimer’s care

The Alzheimer’s Association expects that there will be a 40 percent increase in the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s by 2025. The increased incidence of the disease has certainly heightened the public’s awareness of Alzheimer’s. Despite this increased attention, however, funding for Alzheimer’s research doesn’t match the disease’s severity. The National Institutes of Health spends more than $6 billion a year on cancer research, more than $4 billion on heart disease research and more than $3 billion on HIV/AIDS research – but only $480 million on Alzheimer’s research. While the death rates for cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS are declining, Alzheimer’s remains the only top 10 cause of death without a way to prevent, cure or slow its progression.

The good news is that greater understanding of the disease has been achieved in recent years, and a new, affirmative approach to Alzheimer’s care is emerging. The characteristics of this approach include an individualized approach to care; focusing on the individual’s abilities, not their limitations; and helping people reconnect with the people they were, in order to confirm the people they are and to continually create the people they are becoming.

This approach to care adds to the quality of life of individuals by creating a positive and caring environment where individuals can find meaning and purpose. Caregivers respect each person’s individuality, fostering a sense of self-worth and dignity that enables individuals to recognize and build on their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses. Caregivers introduce meaningful interactions or activities that enable individuals to connect with and honor their past identities and to feel satisfaction with the people they have become.

The affirmative approach to care engages individuals, families and caregivers and adapts to each person’s changes in cognition over time – from the early stage Alzheimer’s when the individual’s changing abilities create small, new challenges; to when caregivers must safeguard the surrounding environment because the individual no longer recognizes danger; and to the final stages of the disease when comfort and connection are as important as receiving care. This approach aims to support the activities of daily living, increase functionality, provide cognitive training, enhance a sense of community and allow each person to continue sharing his or her life story.

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Today, Alzheimer’s care is more relationship-based – between the person and his or her caregiver and family. Caregivers do whatever they can to engage, learn life stories and preferences, building trust.

There is much still to learn about how Alzheimer’s affects individuals and how caregivers and families can best provide the care and support they need. The affirmative approach to care is one example of a healthy evolution of caring for America’s rapidly growing Alzheimer’s population.

Pat Brennan is the Director of Wellness at Green Hills Manor, in Shillington.