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Living with Alzheimer’s

Jolie Koesters

Today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is expected to rise to 13.8 million by 2050.

While there is no cure yet, regular visits with physical, occupational and speech therapists can help people with Alzheimer’s maintain their quality of life for as long as possible.

Early Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s

People with Alzheimer’s struggle to remember even the simplest of daily tasks. They can become increasingly lost or confused when encountering once-familiar objects, people and situations. As their symptoms increase, so do their levels of anxiety, aggression and confusion.

Memory problems that disrupt daily life are among the first visible signs. Other warning signs or symptoms include:

  • Balance and vision problems
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Struggling to find the right words when speaking or writing
  • Losing track of time and place
  • Difficulty making decisions, especially in planning or solving problems
  • Self-isolation and withdrawal from social activities
  • Mood swings and changes in personality
  • Trouble concentrating on tasks such as following a recipe or paying bills

People with Alzheimer’s are usually able to walk until the very last stage of the disease, but may lose strength and balance, which can lead to an increased risk of falls.

How Physical Therapy Can Help

Research shows that improving strength, balance and mobility through regular exercise allows people with Alzheimer’s to continue doing tasks on their own for as long as possible.

  • Physical therapists (PTs) can design exercise programs for people with a variety of health conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, to help prevent future decline.
  • In early and middle stages of Alzheimer’s, PTs can help people maintain strength and balance so they can continue daily activities at home and in the community.
  • In later stages of the disease, physical therapy allows people with Alzheimer’s continue to stay mobile for as long as possible to reduce the burden on family members and caregivers.PTs can also instruct caregivers and family on how to improve safety and manage their loved one’s needs. Through a home assessment, therapists can help make the home safer.

Role of Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy helps maintain daily functioning and social participation in people with Alzheimer’s. It has also been shown to improve the general wellbeing of primary caregivers.

  • Occupational therapists (OTs) identify obstacles that prevent Alzheimer’s patients from functioning independently in their daily activities. They create structure into their patients’ daily routine to maintain familiarity and independence for as long as possible.
  • In addition to providing home evaluations and recommendations for supports and assistive devices (such as memory-friendly clocks, chair lifts or other mobility aids), OTs also work with caregivers to offer everyday advice and techniques for managing care.
  • OTs can also help Alzheimer’s patients maintain motor function and mobility, retain communication functions and simplify basic skills so they can complete daily tasks independently for as long as possible.

Benefits of Speech Therapy

Speech therapy with licensed speech and language pathologists (SLPs) not only helps Alzheimer’s patients to communicate and interact with others, it may also slow progression of the disease.

  • Patients who receive speech therapy are often able to understand their language much better, especially in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • SLPs work on attention, memory, problem solving and thinking/reasoning skills to allow people with Alzheimer’s to maintain the ability to communicate with family and caregivers for as long possible.
  • Speech therapy also focuses on swallowing and eating skills, which can become issues in the later stages of the disease. Weight loss and problems with swallowing are major contributing factors in decline of Alzheimer’s patients.

Therapy can help improve quality of life, slow cognitive decline and may delay the need for facility-based care. Although a cure is yet to come, physical, occupational and speech therapists can help Alzheimer’s patients make the most of their lives for as long as possible.

To schedule an evaluation with a RehabVisions therapist, please call our State Street outpatient clinic at 701-483-9400 or CHI/St. Alexius at 701-456-4387.

In addition to seeking out rehab therapy, there is a wealth of resources available to patients, families and caregivers through the Alzheimer’s Association. There is also a 24/7 helpline at 800-272-3900 to answer questions or identify resources like support groups that may help you.

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