Every 67 seconds, another American develops Alzheimer's disease, adding to the estimated 5.3 million people who already have it, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
And if you think those numbers are shocking, consider this: In 2014, friends and family of people with Alzheimer's and other dementias provided an estimated 17.9 billion hours of unpaid care, which adds up to about $217.7 billion (Some perspective: that's eight times McDonald's total revenue in 2013.)
"Caregiving in general has many challenges, from emotional issues, to financial burden, employment issues and of course quality of life," says Molly Carpenter, MA education/gerontology and CAREGiver Experience Advisor for Home Instead Senior Care and author of Confidence to Care: A Resource for Family Caregivers Providing Alzheimer's Disease or Other Dementias Care at Home. "When you add a disease like Alzheimer's into the equation, it can present a whole new set of challenges."
There's no routine when it comes to caring for someone with Alzheimer's. The disease affects each individual differently, so no two days — or even two hours — are the same.
"Imagine a job or task that at any moment it can be different from as little as five minutes ago," Carpenter explains. "When a person is in a constant state of change, anxiety is at the forefront for not only them, but their caregiver as well."
Remember To Take Care Of You
The emotional and physical stress of being a caregiver for someone with dementia takes a toll, especially on spouses, and can lead to higher levels of stress hormones, a weakened immune system and increased risk for high blood pressure and coronary heart disease. The biggest culprit of caregiver stress, Carpenter notes, is the need to be in a state of constant awareness.
"The caregiver is always 'on,' which can lead to exhaustion and lack of sleep," she says. "Wandering isn't on a clock—it can happen at any time. With this uncertainty and safety concerns, family caregivers stay home more often, which leads to isolation and depression."
To squash the stress before it gets too overwhelming, Carpenter recommends both caregivers and their loved ones follow these tips:
Find support. Joining a support group can help you meet people who truly understand the difficult situation you're facing. Carpenter suggests contacting your local Alzheimer's Association to find an in-person support group. But if leaving the home is too difficult, there's also plenty of support online. "Caregivers can join a virtual support group with the Remember for Alzheimer's Facebook group, which has over 260,000 caregivers talking daily."
Ask for and accept help from others. "Family and friends want to help, but they usually don't know how," she says. "Next time someone offers support, be prepared with a few ideas, such as dropping off dinner or running to the pharmacy." If possible, enlist a professional caretaker. "It's important for a caregiver to take that extra time for themselves."
Get formal training. Educational support can better equip a personal caretaker for the role, Carpenter says. One option she recommends is a free online course that's available at HelpforAlzheimersFamilies.com. "These are great classes that walk through the basics of the disease, but more importantly give tips and techniques for minimizing symptoms and creating meaningful days at home."
Another option is the free Alzheimer's & Other Dementias Daily Companion app, which is designed to help families navigate care situations. "A caregiver can search topics or enter a topic such as 'wandering' or 'help with a bath,' and a list of resources, articles and even advice from other family caregivers will pop up for quick solutions."