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Published April 14, 2012, 11:30 PM

Bursack: Helping mom accept Alzheimer’s diagnosis

Dear Carol: My 87-year-old widowed mother has been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s disease. She’s been quite independent, and is very upset over the diagnosis, even though her symptoms are mild.

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

Dear Carol: My 87-year-old widowed mother has been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s disease.

She’s been quite independent, and is very upset over the diagnosis, even though her symptoms are mild. My siblings and I don’t know how to comfort her. I know she’s already thinking ahead to the worst stages of the disease. How do we help her? – Dennis

Dear Dennis: Dementia is a frightening diagnosis for most people, so it’s not unusual that your mother is already projecting into what she sees as her future with the end stage of Alzheimer’s.

I’d begin by making a strong statement that each case of dementia is different and that people decline in cognitive function at varying rates. If she’s just in an early stage, she’s probably functioning quite well, considering her age. There are medications that may help slow the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease for some people, so she should speak with her doctor about that option.

To best protect her medical and financial interests, if she hasn’t already done so, she should get her legal documents in order for someone to take over should she become incapacitated.

This is also a good time to talk with her about different types of care she would like as her needs increase. It may help to point out that considering her age, even with relative good health other than dementia, she would likely need some kind of help eventually.

Remind her that her Alzheimer’s diagnosis didn’t make her suddenly worse. It simply gave her a label for her symptoms.

Alzheimer’s at her age will likely present itself as a slow decline in functioning. It’s quite possible some other health event could threaten her health before Alzheimer’s even reaches the later stages. Family members may want to discuss whether or not this is a good way to approach her, but some people may find that a conversation about age and general health can help put the disease into perspective.

She still has a life to live. She just needs some help seeing that.

Please be careful not to make any promises you may not be able to keep, such as “I’ll never put you in a nursing home.” Your mother may do well with in-home care supplemented by family care. Maybe a family member could take her into their home. But often, declining health from any number of diseases can make a nursing home the safest and best choice for a loved one. You don’t want to cope with the guilt of backtracking on a promise along with your own grief over her illness.

Encourage your family to contact the Alzheimer’s Association for support and information.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.

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