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Understanding Alzheimer's Disease

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

What is Alzheimer’s disease? It is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time. It's also degenerative, which means it causes cells to waste away and never return. And it is a disease for which there is no cure.

The “early stage” of Alzheimer’s Disease

The symptoms of the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease come on slowly and may include:

  • Poor concentration and a short attention span.

  • Problems making decisions.

  • Short-term memory problems.

  • Forgetfulness, such as forgetting names, dates, how things work or how to pay bills.

  • Depression.

  • Some personality changes such as becoming cranky, silly, frustrated or very quiet.

The “middle stage” of Alzheimer’s Disease

The symptoms of the middle-stage of Alzheimer’s disease include a worsening of all the signs of the early stage, plus new symptoms, including:

  • Episodes of getting lost, even in familiar places.

  • Problems with speech--not being able to remember words or be part of a conversation.

  • Tendency to follow people around (also called shadowing).

  • Behavior problems such as urinating in strange places, cursing, acting silly or making sexual advances.

Symptoms of the “late stage” of Alzheimer’s Disease

The late stage of Alzheimer’s disease can last for three years or more. It is also known as the Terminal Period, since these Alzheimer’s patients are nearing death. People with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease are often bedridden and at risk for a number of infections. The symptoms include:

  • Weight loss.

  • Loss of balance and ability to walk.

  • Loss of short and long-term memory.

  • Loss of speech, although Alzheimer’s patients may groan or scream.

  • Inability to perform basic skills such as eating or drinking.

  • Failure to recognize others or even themselves.

  • Respiratory infections (people with Alzheimer’s disease often die from pneumonia).

Helping someone with Alzheimer’s Disease

  • People with Alzheimer’s Disease often have a reduced sense of smell. Keep in mind that they might not be able to smell something burning and should be monitored when cooking and/or smoking. Check their refrigerator often as they may not be able to tell if food is spoiled.

  • Post pictures or signs as clues to help your loved one with Alzheimer’s find their way around.

  • Be patient and flexible. Help with personal care as needed but allow your loved one as much independence as possible. Keep in mind they may forget to brush their teeth on Wednesday but remember on Friday.

  • Prevent complications of immobility: People in the later stage of Alzheimer’s disease suffer from lack of mobility and may be bedridden or chair bound. Skin breakdown, pressure sores and contractions may result from lack of mobility. Medical professionals can recommend proper techniques to provide needed movement to reduce complications due to immobility.

  • Limit choices: It’s best to limit clothing choices for those with Alzheimer’s. Asking “What would you like to wear today?” will probably just cause confusion.

  • If a loved one with Alzheimer’s clamp their mouths shut during eating, try stroking their cheeks or pretend to yawn. This may get them to open their mouths.

  • People with Alzheimer’s disease usually like to eat with their fingers. (Using silverware can be too confusing.) Make sure food is cut into bite-sized pieces and not too hot to be picked up.

  • Some people with Alzheimer's have trouble seeing their food. For example, if you serve mashed potatoes on a white plate, they may not be able to see them. It may help to put the food on a dark or brightly colored plate.

  • The repetitive behavior common to people with Alzheimer’s disease can come from their brain being “stuck” on a certain task or idea. It can also come from an emotional upset. For example, if your loved one with Alzheimer’s gets confused or overwhelmed, they may begin to pace or rock or repeat a hand motion over and over. Try to find out if (and why) they are upset or try to turn the repetitive motion into something useful like sweeping, dusting or folding towels.


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