Dear Doctor: I’m 95 and was recently diagnosed with dementia. The doctor recommended a pill, but it’s not a cure. I don’t want to go through that illness for years, as it would be too hard on my daughter. Do you have any other suggestions? I do word search puzzles all the time.
Dear Reader: We were moved by your loving and thoughtful letter, which focused so much more on the welfare of your daughter than on what the diagnosis of dementia means for your own future. Living to 95 is quite an accomplishment, and we are sorry that you and your family must now face this new challenge.
“Dementia” is a general term used to refer to an array of progressive neurodegenerative diseases, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common. It’s true that patients now have access to several dementia medications, which work by bolstering chemical messengers in the brain that play a role in learning, memory, mood and judgment. However, the effects of these medications are often uneven, and, unfortunately, they are always short-lived. In addition, they can result in side effects such as nausea, fatigue, muscle aches, insomnia and headache.
A number of herbal and alternative therapies have been promoted as aids for dementia, but the data regarding their effectiveness is weak. If you do decide to explore alternative therapies, please be sure to let your medical care team know so you stay safe. It’s possible for certain herbs and supplements to interfere or interact with prescription medications.
In our individual practices, we focus on helping patients and their families with supportive care. This includes maintaining a consistent environment for the patient, whether at home or in a skilled nursing facility. Exercising the mind with reading, games and all kinds of puzzles, including the word search puzzles you’re already completing, has been shown to be helpful in delaying the onset of symptoms.
Avoiding social isolation is also crucial. It’s common for the elderly to withdraw from family and social life as they age, and this can become even more pronounced after a dementia diagnosis. We would urge you and your daughter to begin researching the community-based services that are available in your area. This will allow you to develop a support network appropriate for both your current needs and future ones. You will be able to connect with others who are facing a similar diagnosis, and your daughter will find a supportive community. The Alzheimer’s Association offers help with home and personal safety, recreational opportunities and quality of life factors. Educating yourself about dementia and its progress can help both you and your daughter prepare for the future.
It’s also important to make any financial or legal decisions, including documents like power of attorney, before things progress too far. A good starting place for more information on all aspects of dementia is the Alzheimer’s Association. You can find the website at alz.org.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.
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