Living with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia: How Palliative Care Can Help

By Andy Esch, MD 

If you care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, you may be struggling with the day-to-day challenges and maintaining quality of life. Dementia is a disease of the brain, which begins with memory loss, confusion, and difficulty making decisions, all of which worsen over time. This may mean that your loved one doesn’t recognize their surroundings or people in their life, or may not be able to find the right words or do tasks that were once handled easily. 

More care and support is needed as time goes by, which adds stress for families taking on this responsibility. Palliative care, a medical specialty, can help family and other caregivers understand and manage various symptoms like agitation and poor or altered sleep, reduce distress, and improve quality of life.

Palliative care (pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv) is specialized medical care for people living with a serious illness, like dementia. This type of care is focused on relief from the symptoms and stress of the illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. Palliative care is provided by a specially trained team of doctors, nurses and other specialists who work together with a patient’s other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness, and it can be provided along with other medical treatment.

How Palliative Care Helps Those Living with Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias

Palliative care teams are trained to manage the symptoms and stress of serious illnesses. They help the person with dementia and those caring for them in many ways. This includes reducing some of the physical and emotional suffering of the person with dementia; advising families on what to expect over time; and providing guidance for decision making. The team also helps prevent unnecessary hospital trips; coordinates with other doctors (e.g. if your loved one has another serious illness that they are receiving treatment for); and equally important, addresses health and wellbeing of family caregivers.

If your loved one is living with dementia, palliative care specialists can be a very important source of support for you and your family. Depending on the palliative care program (and the resources available), they’ll do their best to insure that you are part of the health care team, and connect you with services within your community to assist with things like shopping and transportation. 

How to Get Palliative Care

If you have a loved one living with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia, you’re your doctor for a referral to palliative care. For tips on how to bring it up during an appointment, click here. Palliative care is available in most hospitals and is growing in outpatient clinics. In some areas, palliative care teams are available for home visits. You can also search this Provider Directory for palliative care resources in your area.

COVID-19 Safety Reminder

As someone caring for a loved one with a serious illness, it’s important to continue following health and safety guidelines related to COVID-19. The virus is still circulating and those with more than one risk factor could face more severe complications if they catch this infection. The virus is spread through person-to-person contact, via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or even simply talks. It’s not always clear if someone is infected, so the U.S. Centers for Disease Control advises that individuals in higher risk groups maintain health and safety practices. These include proper and frequent handwashing or use of hand sanitizer, wearing face coverings in public, and physical distancing with anyone outside of your immediate family circle. Visit the COVID-19 information pages at GetPalliativeCare.org to learn more.

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