How to Maintain a Fulfilling Lifestyle With Alzheimer's Disease
If you were recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia, you probably have a lot of questions about what your immediate future holds. The first thing you should know is that your life isn't going to change right away.
Mary Rastetter, support group facilitator for Chicago Methodist Senior Services, says often, people with Alzheimer's think that their day-to-day life will dramatically change immediately after their diagnosis. But that's not the case. While the symptoms progress at different rates for everyone, life-altering changes from the disease aren't immediate.
"A lot of people think that once they get their diagnosis, their life is over," Rastetter says. "There are a lot of people living with Alzheimer's, and they're still able to thrive in their lives."
While you will have to make adjustments to your lifestyle after your diagnosis, know that major changes aren't going to occur overnight. Every individual experiences the stages of Alzheimer's differently, and you can take proactive steps to improve your health as much as possible.
Work with your doctor to establish a treatment plan
After your diagnosis, one of the first things you should do is talk to your doctor about treatment possibilities. There are several medications and other treatment options like cognitive rehabilitation therapy that you can discuss with your doctor. You may even qualify for a clinical trial, which has the potential to help you and, in the long term, contribute to better treatment for others. Don't be afraid to ask questions if you have them. Your doctor may also be able to recommend methods to help you remember and stick to your treatments.
Consulting your physician is the most important thing you can do to learn your options for living well with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, but making adjustments to your lifestyle choices may also help you sustain your memory.
Challenge your brain
According to the Alzheimer's Association, research shows that maintaining a strong and healthy mind helps slow the decline of brain cells. One way to strengthen your brain's capacity is to challenge it, and the best way to do so is by teaching it something new.
Invest your mind in subjects you've always been interested in by committing yourself to lifelong learning. If you've enjoyed literature for years, for example, continue to read new books. If you consider yourself a wordsmith, challenge yourself with crossword puzzles.
There are plenty of hobbies you can take up that are both enjoyable and stimulating for your mind. Gardening, attending plays and even playing games are other ways you can keep your mind active daily. At the same time, don't force activities you've never enjoyed. If you've never liked puzzles, now is not the time to exert energy on that activity.
Physical activity is just as important for your mind as mental activity. If you are physically able, raising your heart rate with cardiovascular exercise is good for both your brain and body -- it helps mitigate memory loss risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol. Cardiovascular exercise also improves blood flow to your brain, and is associated with better cognitive health.
You can also use exercise as a way to engage socially. Golfing, taking a dance class or even walking your dog with a neighbor are all ways to raise your heart rate and maintain an active social life.
Maintaining social relationships is an important element of your overall well-being, and can help you maintain a support network, another important part of taking care of yourself.
Stay socially engaged
According to Rastetter, people who have recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's tend to isolate themselves.
"What we see a lot is that people shut themselves in and they're embarrassed, so if there's way to get involved in the community, they should," she says.
Besides engaging socially through different types of exercise, you can also join a support group. Participating in a support group is a great way to both talk about the disease with people who share your experiences, and learn more about different ways you can manage memory loss and other symptoms. According to the Alzheimer's Association, about 5.5 million people are living with Alzheimer's, so there is a large community you can relate to. With so many people nationwide living with Alzheimer's disease, it's easy to find a support group near you. The Alzheimer's Association's Illinois Chapter website is a great place to start.
The workplace is another way you can engage socially. If you still work, and feel comfortable talking to your employer, see if they can make adjustments to your daily tasks. This way, you can continue to do work you enjoy, stay mentally engaged and maintain your daily social interactions.
If you are retired, you can also volunteer for an organization you support. Volunteer opportunities range in responsibility and time commitment, so you can easily find an option that fits your abilities and interests. If you don't have an organization in mind, you can turn to resources like the website VolunteerMatch.org.
Spend time with your family
Your family members and close friends know you best. Having people you know and trust assist you with lifestyle modifications -- such as helping pay bills or providing transportation -- will help you live a more safe, fulfilling life. Your family members can also help you plan for your future, by ensuring that your legal documents are in order. Asking for assistance will actually help you maintain your independence -- you stay in control when you decide who helps you.
Your friends and family can also help you continue to engage socially, mentally and physically. Their role in your life will prompt you to participate in more social activities you might not want to do alone. Rather than shying away from your family after your diagnosis, continue to visit museums, attend movie showings, go to restaurants and other events that you've always enjoyed with them.
As with many diagnoses, Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia will change your life. But Rastetter says it's important for you and your family members to remember that who you are will never change.
"A person is not their diagnosis," she says. "They're still the same person inside. They're still the same friend. They're still the same mother."
It's important not to jump to conclusions about how your condition will progress. Alzheimer's and related conditions affect every person differently. Continuing to strengthen your mind, body and social relationships will prolong your independence, allowing you to maintain a positive outlook on life and maintain a fulfilling lifestyle.
Bill Lowe is the president and CEO of Chicago Methodist Senior Services, a nonprofit provider of memory care; skilled nursing; supportive and assisted living; cardiac, orthopedic and neurologic rehabilitation; and other aging services.