University of Pittsburgh psychiatry professor Richard Schulz has been one of the nation’s foremost researchers on caregiving stress for
CHICAGO — For Anne Hunt, clues that something wasn’t quite right started to mount. She was repeating herself. And forgetting things.
Ms. Hunt, 80, had always been organized. But the Chicago woman increasingly found herself confused about plans. Did she agree to that date, or was she supposed to follow up?
Her daughter suggested she talk to a doctor about whether she might have Alzheimer’s, the degenerative brain disease that impairs memory, thinking and reasoning. After examining brain scans, the doctor confirmed that Ms. Hunt’s symptoms indicated Alzheimer’s.
Ms. Hunt’s confusion about time and place is one of 10 warning signs of the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, whose Greater Illinois chapter recently held a public education session on the topic in Chicago. The association says more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.
Most warning signs are related to memory loss or confusion that poses challenges in daily life. People with the disease might experience one or more symptoms to varying degrees. The organization recommends seeing a doctor if you notice one of the signs, because early detection can mean getting the most benefit from available treatments.
A dozen people attended the seminar, where the chapter’s manager of education and outreach, Phillip Bennett, cautioned that just because a person exhibits a warning sign doesn’t mean he or she has Alzheimer’s.
For example, he asked, how many people have called one of their children by another child’s name? Hands went up as people laughed. A memory lapse like this doesn’t necessarily signal Alzheimer’s, he said. It might simply be a side effect of aging, or it could be a different form of dementia. Many people struggle to find a word, he added, but someone with Alzheimer’s might stop in the middle of the conversation and have no idea how to continue.
Similarly, we all lose things from time to time, but someone with Alzheimer’s might be incapable of retracing his steps in an effort to find that misplaced item. And perhaps someone isn’t good with directions. But a person with Alzheimer’s might drive 20 minutes to church and take three hours to get home because they can’t remember the route.
“Someone with the disease [might] remember what happened to them when they were 9 years old,” Mr. Bennett said. “But they can’t remember what happened three minutes ago.”
Other signs include withdrawal from work or social activities. Changes in mood or personality also can be a sign — such as feeling suspicious, fearful or anxious.
“They may have been very mild-mannered,” Mr. Bennett said. “Now they’re cursing in church.”
Annette Campbell, 72, attended the seminar to get a better understanding of what’s “normal” when it comes to forgetting things.
“You do wonder,” the Chicago woman said. “I don’t remember as well as I used to. It’s good to know the symptoms.”
Ms. Hunt, who didn’t attend the session, learned she had Alzheimer’s a few years ago. She’d watched her mother and aunt age with what was likely Alzheimer’s, so she was well acquainted with the symptoms. But she didn’t expect the diagnosis.
“I was surprised,” she said, “I think partly because I didn’t want to hear it.”
She and her husband, Bruce, work together to manage her symptoms, such as forgetting things or becoming confused during a conversation.
Every morning, they meditate and map out the day. Anne keeps a daily to-do list, which helps her stay focused and remember tasks. They also write reminders on a dry-erase calendar.
Having been married for 60 years, the Hunts know the power of communication. If Anne is struggling for a word, Bruce will ask if she would like help or if she’d rather figure it out on her own.
He also gently helps steer conversation, knowing his wife feels embarrassed when she repeats herself.
“He’ll say, ‘You already said that,’” Anne said.
The couple radiate positivity, and they point to several reasons why. They live in the same building as their daughter and son-in-law, who cooks for them four times a week. They belong to support groups. They also swim twice a week at the local YMCA.
The daily journal Anne has kept for 30 years has shifted from a comfort to a catalog, helping her remember when she forgets. And she devised a way to maintain her love of cooking despite a sometimes-muddled memory. She places all of the ingredients on one side of the kitchen and moves them one by one as she incorporates them into a recipe. That way, if the sugar is on one side of the counter, she’ll know whether it’s been used.
For memory challenges, scrapbooks help. A shelf in their home is filled with bound copies, recounting everything from family parties to home renovation projects. They enjoy putting the scrapbooks together, and they saw how the books helped her mother and aunt.
“Even when my aunt was hardly there, she would still surprise us by pointing to a picture and saying someone’s name,” Anne said.
Knowing the warning signs, and now managing them as symptoms, has helped them maintain a sense of control over the disease.
“It’s a way of bringing some order to it,” Bruce said.
The 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s:
— Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
— Challenges in planning or solving problems.
— Difficulty completing familiar tasks.
— Confusion with time or place.
— Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
— New problems with words in speaking or writing.
— Misplacement of things and loss in the ability to retrace steps.
— Decreased or poor judgment.
— Withdrawal from work or social activities.
— Changes in mood or personality.
Learn more about the early signs at www.alz.org/10-signs-symptoms-alzheimers-dementia.asp