young hand holding old hand

Alzheimer's disease has devastating effects for the person suffering from the illness, and for that person's family. As the disease progresses, it's common for family members to take an increasing role as caregivers.

But before you can be an effective caregiver, you must understand the basic facts about Alzheimer's and how the disease progresses over time. It's also important to learn how you as a caregiver can prepare to take care of yourself while supporting someone who is ill.

What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia (or loss of brain function) that affects memory and thinking, as well as behavior. Alzheimer's tends to worsen over time.

While older people are more likely to develop the disease, it's not a natural part of aging, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The causes of Alzheimer's remain unclear, but researchers believe that genetic and environmental factors may play a role.

There are two types of Alzheimer's: early onset (where symptoms appear before age 60) and late onset (where symptoms occur after age 60). Early onset is less common than late onset.

What Are the Symptoms of Alzheimer's?

Early symptoms of Alzheimer's may include:

  • Difficulty with certain routine tasks that used to come easily, such as managing finances and learning new skills
  • Getting lost easily, even on familiar routes
  • Forgetfulness and language problems, such as inability to remember names of familiar things and misplacing items
  • Loss of interest in activities enjoyed previously
  • Loss of social skills

As Alzheimer's becomes more serious, it can affect patients' ability to do basic tasks and take care of themselves. They may have difficulty reading and writing, and may forget significant events in their own life histories, or even lose awareness of who they are. In its most severe stages, people with the disease may no longer be able to understand language or recognize their own family members.

How Can Caregivers Take Care of Themselves Too?

In a study by the Working Mother Research Institute sponsored by GE, researchers found that caregiver health is a major issue. Caregivers have been found to take better care of their loved one who has Alzheimer's than they take care of themselves.

While caregivers provide a wide range of care for their loved ones--such as communicating with doctors, providing transportation, doing housework, and cooking meals--they often neglect their own needs. They may fail to eat right, forget to exercise, and skip their own medical appointments.

Here are some ideas on how caregivers can protect themselves against the burnout and stress of providing care for someone with Alzheimer's:

  • Take a break. It's impossible to provide effective care without taking time away from care giving. Give yourself breaks throughout the day, even if it's just for a quick cup of tea in a quiet place.
  • Schedule meals. Caregivers may feel they are too busy to eat proper meals. Plan in advance what you'll eat, and prepare it the night before if necessary. Ensure that you're keeping up with your own nutritional needs.
  • Do a mini-workout. If you don't have time for a full workout break, try to do a "mini." Walk around the block, do some sets of stairs, or go behind closed doors for a quick exercise DVD. Ten minutes of something active is better than nothing--especially if you make the effort to fit in a few breaks a day.

HealthAhead Hint: How to Handle Double Duty

Providing care to someone with Alzheimer's may seem like an overwhelming challenge. That's why it's crucial for caregivers to take time to care for themselves, even while providing support for someone who is ill. The Working Mother Research Institute found that Alzheimer's caregivers are at greater risk for developing a number of health conditions, including heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. This issue has national implications as well as personal: the Alzheimer's Association estimates that problems with caregiver health cost the United States approximately $8.7 billion annually. Remember, you can't be an effective caregiver when your own needs aren't met. Be sure to take time as a caregiver to care for yourself.