Information about Coping with Alzheimer's for Caregivers

More than seven out of 10 people with Alzheimer's disease live at home, where family and friends provide almost 75% of their care. The daily challenges and frustrations of caring for an individual with dementia can leave family members feeling both physically and emotionally drained. Because family caregivers are often faced with overwhelming day-to-day responsibilities, most tend to neglect their own physical and mental health.

Caregivers are at risk for developing high blood pressure, elevated insulin levels, cardiovascular disease, and an impaired immune system. They frequently experience depression and have high levels of stress. It is imperative that caregivers pay attention to their own wellbeing—both for their own good as well as for the person with dementia.

One study found that if a caregiver was depressed or under heavy emotional stress, the person being cared for was more likely to experience wandering, hallucinations, and paranoia—which subsequently increase caregiver stress. Other research found that improving caregiver well-being delayed nursing home placement of individuals with Alzheimer's by an average of 18 months.

Caregivers should try to recognize and accept the fact that feelings of love for a relative may be tempered with anger, anxiety, frustration, or embarrassment. These reactions are perfectly natural and need not be a source of guilt. Caregivers may benefit from joining a caregiver support group and should try to schedule regular respites. It's important to ask for help, set realistic goals, and consider professional counseling if necessary. Exercise is important for mental and physical health. Regular walking, for example, is an excellent stress reliever, and it is also beneficial for the person with dementia.

Nursing Homes and Assisted-Living Facilities

As dementia progresses, a patient's increasing dependence and need for supervision may make it more difficult for his or her family to provide all necessary care. At this point in the illness, the family may need to move the person to an assisted-living facility or a nursing home. Because caring for someone with dementia often requires the skills of professionally trained people, nursing home placement may be in the patient's best interest. Half of all nursing home residents suffer from Alzheimer's or a related disorder.

The decision to place a family member in a nursing home can be hard for the family to accept and may be accompanied by feelings of guilt, sadness, and anger. In addition, the bad publicity some nursing homes have received for providing inadequate and sometimes dangerous care can add to the anxiety. Try to focus on the fact that many nursing homes do provide excellent care. With thorough research, you should be able to find a suitable facility.

Before deciding on a nursing home, you may want to explore other residential care programs, such as assisted-living facilities, which provide a combination of housing, personalized assistance, and medical care. These facilities vary in size, cost, services, location, and quality; whether a particular facility is appropriate for a person with Alzheimer's disease depends on the level of care needed and provided.

If you determine that a nursing home is the best option, the first step toward finding a good one is to talk to as many people as possible. Helpful information may come from the patient's doctor, from friends and acquaintances who have a family member in a home, and from the nursing home ombudsperson (a staff member who is responsible for investigating complaints). In addition, your local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association may have a list of recommended homes or personal references. Visit any nursing homes under consideration several times before making a final decision.

Publication Review By: Peter V. Rabins, M.D., M.P.H.

Published: 14 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 23 Jun 2011