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Memory support: Second in a three-part series

Battling early dementia

Created date

September 25th, 2012

Once you have received a diagnosis of Alzheimer s disease or another memory-robbing illness, it s not the end of the road but the beginning of a journey that should not be taken alone. Having early dementia does not mean you cannot live independently, says Margaret Stewart, D.H.A., senior director of health services clinical programming for Living. You may have mild symptoms of cognitive loss for years, but with the proper support services, you can do quite well, even if you live alone. Memory Health is a part of Erickson Living s comprehensive three-part Memory Support program. Last month s issue focused on how Memory Fitness is working to help Erickson Living residents keep their memory sharp. This month focuses on Memory Health, the component of the Memory Support program designed for people with an early dementia-related illness.

About dementia

Dementia is not a disease, but rather a set of symptoms caused by diseases affecting the brain. Dementia is characterized by memory loss and an inability to function in daily life. Alzheimer s disease is the most common cause of dementia one in eight older Americans has it, according to the Alzheimer s Association, and the risk increases with age. About 50% of people over age 85 have some type of memory loss, says Austin Welsh, M.D., medical director at Creek, an Erickson Living community in Overland Park, Kans. Losing your keys or forgetting someone s name, for example, is not necessarily a problem, but if you forget where you are going while you re driving or forget to turn off the stove when you leave the house, that can affect your life, Welsh says.

Maintaining your independence

Memory Health is a systematic approach to managing, coordinating, and offering services to people with early dementia, Stewart says. Memory Health has three components: medical management, supportive services, and resident/family education. Your medical management includes lab tests, cognitive tests, and radiographic imaging if necessary, Welsh says. It s crucial to do a thorough evaluation because your memory loss may be due to a condition that s reversible. Some treatable conditions that may contribute to memory problems include depression, thyroid problems, vitamin deficiencies, or even a lack of proper sleep. If it turns out that your dementia may be related to a memory-robbing illness, we have to follow you closely and do more cognitive testing to narrow down the cause, whether it s Alzheimer s disease, vascular dementia, or another dementia-related disease, he adds. Once we ve established the cause, treatment of early dementia is intended to slow progression of your disease, Welsh explains. You may benefit from a new medication or you may need some other medications adjusted. Other treatment strategies include good nutrition and exercise. There s a substantial amount of scientific evidence that demonstrates the positive brain benefits of exercise, Welsh says. It helps increase blood flow to the brain, and there may be other mechanisms at work that we don t know about yet. Your medical follow-up visits aren t just for the purpose of measuring your memory, we want to get the whole picture of how you are functioning so we know what kind of additional support you may need, Welsh says.

Support and education for your independence

Memory Health includes support services that cover all of the bases. Along with your medical support team, you also have the benefit of a social worker coordinating everything for you. You may benefit from rehab services such as speech-language therapy. These professionals are very skilled in teaching techniques to help you manage your day and also educate you in the strategies needed to compensate for your memory loss, Stewart explains. Clubs and activities are available all around campus, including the Intermissions Program. This program is designed for people who need more structure to their day and want to enjoy daily activities with a small group of other residents. Participating in these types of social activities isn t just about fun and games. When you have memory problems, you may feel self-conscious around other people, Welsh explains. But it s crucial for you to interact with others socially to keep your memory as sharp as possible. Isolating yourself may contribute to progression of your disease. Getting out is even more important if you live alone. The Alzheimer s Association estimates that one in seven people with Alzheimer s disease lives alone, and half of them have no identifiable caregiver. Living alone with dementia increases your risk of malnutrition, untreated health conditions, falls, and accidental death. Memory Health includes the option of home health and home support services, Stewart says. Personal care services, meal preparation, and medication reminders are examples of ways this kind of support can help a person diagnosed with dementia stay active and safe in an independent living environment. An important part of Memory Health is the education component, Stewart says. Learning about your disease is part of it, she adds, but we also provide information about financial safety, advance directives, the types of support available, and how the members of your health care team can help and provide support to you and your family. All aspects of the Memory Health program have one goal to help you enjoy your life and stay as independent as possible.