When most of us think about Alzheimer’s disease, we tend to focus largely on the mental changes – for example, Dad’s inability to remember your name or Mom’s loss of focus. While these components of the disease are often the most visible, and frightening to you as a caregiver, it’s important to understand that there are physical changes too that frequently accompany Alzheimer’s disease.
We have broken down the disease here into three stages, but no condition can be so delineated. Alzheimer’s does not have stark boundaries and so these categories are largely for the sake of organization.
Early Stage Physical Changes
For better or for worse, the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease are not typically characterized by physical changes.
The primary changes that are seen early after diagnosis deal with mental acuity and behavior. For example, your loved one may experience trouble remembering recent events or have difficulty cooking or shopping.
In addition, they might deny their diagnosis and become anxious or upset when the condition is mentioned. Because the disease progresses initially in this direction, you as the caregiver can devote your entire attention to understanding these changes and thinking of ways to mitigate their consequences.
Being prepared early for the physical decline that will occur later on, however, helps to ensure that you do not will not get blindsided when these changes inevitably take place.
Middle Stage Physical Changes
During the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, mental decline begins to manifest itself in certain physical changes.
One of the most common of these is wandering. Your loved one may get restless at certain points throughout the day, and can act on this feeling. He or she might leave the house and walk aimlessly through the neighborhood for hours, which can be dangerous as they are very likely to get lost.
In addition, problems with coordination may result in your loved one having difficulties with walking; shuffling of feet and postural problems are common at this stage. Difficulty with speech formation is common as well, and your loved one can have trouble controlling their mouth precisely enough to articulate their words.
Finally, incontinence issues become apparent at this point, and many people affected with Alzheimer’s will experience accidental urine leakage.
Late Stage Physical Changes
In the final stages of Alzheimer’s progression, the physical changes truly begin to take hold. At this point in the disease it is common for your loved one to experience full incontinence of both the bowel and the bladder and accidents occur with greater frequency.
The muscles become contracted in these later stages, and this may affect their ability to walk, smile, and swallow. Without swallowing, eating often decreases to a large degree and you may see your loved one losing a significant amount of weight. Less food means less energy, and so your loved one may spend the majority of their time sleeping. Finally, at this point in the disease seizures may occur as well.
These changes are scary for any caregiver to experience, and feeling frightened and overwhelmed is to be expected. If you are like me, then you want to fix any problem that you see, especially one that affects your loved one so severely. It’s essential to realize that these problems cannot be reversed.
The best thing you can do for Mom or Dad is to understand what can occur and to get a sense how you can help them coexist with these obstacles. Whether it’s a wheelchair to reduce immobility or diapers to help with incontinence, your assistance is the best – and only – way to support your loved one.