Taking care Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers

Story Image

Dr. Cheryl Woodson

Age is not a disease to be treated, it is an inevitable part of life which with we all need to cope.

Just how we plan to cope with aging and the maladies that come along with advanced years and much longer life spans should be decided long before we get to that point, said eldercare expert Dr. Cheryl Woodson, a geriatric specialist at Ingall’s Memorial Hospital, owner of the Woodson Center in Chicago Heights, author of “To Survive Caregiving: A Daughter’s Experience and Doctor’s Advice,” and a member of the South Suburban Eldercare Network.

“We are a youth-oriented culture who thinks age is optional, that death is optional,” Woodson said. The invention of penicillin and CPR, cardiovascular surgery and the creation of treatments for diseases like cancer and AIDS have left people with the mindset that death is optional; that is just not so, she added. No pill will prevent what is happening to all of us, so it’s best to be prepared and know how you want to spend your twilight years, Woodson said.

While a certain degree of cognitive decline can be expected, and indiscriminate diseases like Alzheimer’s can impact anyone, not all cognitive decline is part of aging or permanent. Woodson advises individuals to be examined by a doctor when they first notice their cognitive functions sliding. In some cases, cognitive decline can be a symptom of another illness. It can also be a side effect of certain medications. Learning about what is causing your cognitive issues and whether or not they are permanent can impact your quality of life and how you prepare for care, she said.

In cases where there is a non-permanent cause of the condition, catching it early enough means it can be reversed before it becomes permanent. If your cognitive decline is permanent, dealing with it and planning for care before it is too late is important.

“Do not put your head in the sand. You put your head in the sand, you create a bigger target. You have to accept people are changing,” Woodson said.

Care for the caregiver

She knows the struggles of aging and Alzheimer’s all too well. Along with caring for her senior patients and helping them navigate their own personal conditions, Woodson also has lived the role of caregiver, taking care of her own mother who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and ultimately died from the illness.

“Families have to understand Alzheimer’s is a terminal disease. We don’t have a treatment that stops this and there is definitely nothing that reverses it,” she said.

Once a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s has been given, Woodson said it’s important to create a quality of life for not only the patient, but also the family members who may be tasked with their care.

Woodson said some frank discussions need to take place long before a diagnosis is received. While some medicines are believed to improve function — something of which she said she is not fully convinced — is that improved function really worth the cost of those medicines? Does it really matter if the patient can comb their own hair, she asked.

“My mother, if she had known for a minute what had happened to her, she wouldn’t have cared about function,” Woodson said.

Woodson said she would rather see families and caregivers spend the money on services such as adult day care, which may be a tool that can help an Alzheimer’s patient stay at home longer by giving the family member tasked with their care a much needed break.

Alzheimer’s disease is a much more complex issue than what the patient can or cannot do. There is an intense emotional burden associated with the disease for the loved ones of the affected individual, Woodson said.

“This is no longer the person who raised you or who you married,” Woodson explained.

Caregivers must have a way to deal with what she calls the “living grief” of witnessing what is happening to their loved one.

“This is a terminal illness. Whatever we do to them will not change what they are dying from,” Woodson said.

She advises all individuals, when they reach the age of 18, to create a legal document that ensures if something were to happen to them, their wishes for care will be followed. People must determine before the need arises who will make decisions for them, under what circumstances life would still be worth living and are there certain kinds of care they definitely want to have.

“You need to discuss this with your family ... (so that) if you become disabled you have control over the way your life ends,” Woodson said.

For more information about the Woodson Center For Adult Healthcare, visit www.woodsonctr.com.