Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia (a type of brain disorder), according to the National Library of Medicine.

  • Alzheimer’s disease is the most common kind of dementia.
  • Alzheimer’s disease can affect memory, thought, and language.
  • When Alzheimer’s worsens to the point where a person cannot properly care for himself or herself, a caregiver – usually a family member – often steps in, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.

How do you know if your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s symptoms may appear slowly, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports. As a caregiver, you may find it hard to tell if your loved one suffers from typical age-related memory issues, or really has dementia. While mild memory problems may appear first, Alzheimer’s symptoms typically become more serious over time.

Beyond memory loss, this list from the National Institute on Aging includes some of the Alzheimer’s symptoms that may appear as this disease progresses:

  • A decline in thinking and judgment skills
  • Loss of language skills, such as struggling for words or trouble understanding
  • More pronounced memory loss, such as repeating a question just asked minutes before, or not remembering how to do a simple, familiar task
  • Personality changes or odd behavior
  • Getting lost in a familiar area, such as one’s neighborhood

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between symptoms of Alzheimer’s and those of normal aging. If you’re concerned that your loved one might have signs of Alzheimer’s, a visit to the doctor for some screening tests may shed some light on the situation. A doctor (especially one familiar with dementia, such as a geriatrician) may also be able to suggest some caregiving tips or tell you about ways you can get help or support.

Can Alzheimer’s disease be cured?

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s at present, according to the National Institutes of Health, but there are prescription medications that may help manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. Some doctors may prescribe medications to treat behavioral symptoms that sometimes accompany dementia, such as anxiety or depression. You may want to take your loved one to the doctor and talk about whether he has Alzheimer’s, and the doctor’s treatment recommendations.

What are some tips for Alzheimer’s caregivers?

Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s can be difficult and frustrating, especially if the disease results in changes to the patient’s personality. You have a lot of company: according to NIH studies, nearly six million unpaid caregivers – typically relatives – care for loved ones with dementia.

If you’re the patient’s spouse, you may well be facing age-related health problems of your own, and may find yourself especially exhausted. If you’re a daughter or son, you may find yourself juggling this care with your job, raising children, and other responsibilities.

So, yes, caregiving for a dementia patient can be stressful. But what can you do?

First, be heartened by the fact that symptoms of Alzheimer’s generally come on slowly, which may give you time to plan ahead, as the Family Caregiver Alliance points out.

Secondly, it may help if you come to grips with the fact that the disease will get worse over time. Be aware that you might need to adjust your caregiver role as your loved one’s disease progresses.

  • In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, for example, you might want to help him make lists or post friendly reminders where he can easily see them. You might want to take advantage of this early stage to learn as much as you can about this disease, and line up some support to help you down the road.
  • As your loved one starts to lose her self-management capabilities such as paying bills, you’ll need to be ready to take on that role or assign it to a trusted family member. You’ll probably want to prepare paperwork such as power of attorney so you’ll be able to make a smooth transition into managing your loved one’s finances.
  • In the later stages of Alzheimer’s, you’ll need to take steps to make sure the patient is safe and healthy as her self-caring abilities wane. At this point, it often becomes essential that the patient does not live alone, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. You might have to take away his car keys, take over the cooking so he doesn’t use the stove anymore (fire/burn hazard if left on), keep him from wandering out of the home and getting lost, attend to his personal hygiene, and pick up other protective tasks.

Home health agencies can help with some of the duties involved in taking care of an Alzheimer patient, but these services can cost money. You may want to meet with relatives and figure out a plan.

For example:

  • In some families, siblings can take “shifts” caring for their Mom or Dad.
  • There may be adult day programs in your community where your loved one can be safe while you’re at work.
  • Figure out how many hours a week you can afford to hire a home health aide with Alzheimer’s expertise.

If your loved one has reached the point where she shouldn’t be living alone (for her own safety), you might be able to set up an affordable arrangement where she goes to adult day care for several hours a day Monday through Friday; a home health aide visits several hours a week; and a relative or volunteer comes in for a few hours over the weekend so that you can do errands, or relax.

Where else can you turn for help with an Alzheimer’s patient?

One effective source of relief for many people is getting support and advice to help them cope. An Alzheimer’s Association study in 2015 found that even completely telephone-based support resulted in lower stress levels and better responses to patients’ behavior in those who got this support compared with those participants who didn’t.

So, don’t hesitate to reach out before you burn out. Here are some organizations (listed by the National Institute on Aging) that may be helpful:

Medicare coverage of Alzheimer’s disease

Since there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, there is no Medicare coverage specifically centered around this disease. However, Medicare Part B (the medical insurance part of Original Medicare) may cover doctor visits; you generally pay an annual deductible and a 20% copayment.

If the doctor prescribes medications to treat Alzheimer’s symptoms, you’ll need to look outside Original Medicare (Part A and Part B) to plans offered by private, Medicare-approved insurance companies to cover these prescription drugs. A stand-alone Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Plan, or a Medicare Advantage Prescription Drug plan, may help pay for drugs prescribed by your loved one’s doctor. You’ll need to check the plan’s formulary (list of covered prescription drugs) to find out if they are covered.  A plan’s formulary may change at any time. You will receive notice from your plan when necessary.