Caring for elderly loved ones with disease


By: Teri Mercier – September, 2010

Taking care of an elderly loved one is no easy task. When disease is involved, it becomes even more challenging. People who care for an elderly loved one make up almost one quarter of adults in most states in America, and the numbers are growing.

Family caregivers provide almost $310 billion dollars in free services to the elderly in this country alone. “Caregiver” or “care giving” are terms that many have not heard before. Basically the term refers to a person who is responsible for or attending to the needs of an adult loved one. A spouse, son, daughter, grandchild, or even a friend may be the caregiver.

Sometimes it may be a collaboration of several members all doing a different task to help accomplish all the needs of the individual. Collaborating is an ideal situation, because it helps prevent burnout. All too often, however, the task of care giving falls on the shoulders of a single person. Many who provide this service make big life style changes in order to provide for their elderly loved one. Many take on this task with little or no experience, and there are many tasks to undertake.

An elderly person may need assistance with getting dressed, hygiene and toileting. Providing transport to doctor visits, cooking meals, monitoring proper nutrition, making sure they take medications properly are other tasks provided by the caregiver.

The elderly person may also need assistance with finances, making sure the bills are paid, balancing their accounts, and providing for the upkeep of their homes. Care givers are most often people with the biggest hearts and deserve to be recognized for the monumental service they give to others. The role they take on can quickly lead to burnout, and they often forget to take care of themselves. All too often they go unrecognized or unappreciated by other family members who lack the full understanding of the sacrifice they are making to be able to care for someone. Perhaps you are not the primary caregiver of your loved one, but you can help by offering to fill in occasionally, or you might offer to take the caregiver out to lunch or to a movie. Being there as a good listener gives emotional support as they vent and release their stress.

Caring for an elderly loved one is challenging enough in itself; add a common disease that often affects elderly, and you’ve got a big responsibility on your hands. There are several common diseases which afflict the elderly. Arthritis is probably the most common. Basically it is the inflammation of the joints in the body. While arthritis can include more than 100 conditions, there are two basic types of arthritis: rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. Rheumatoid starts at a young age, while osteoarthritis tends to affect people age 50 and over. Often rheumatoid arthritis will come and go, while the pain and stiffness from osteoarthritis will gradually worsen over time. Arthritis can affect any joint in the body, but typically rheumatoid begins in the upper body such as finger joints, while osteoarthritis might begin in the knees, hips or lower body. Arthritis can begin and present itself differently for every individual. It is the leading cause of disability in American over the age of 15.The exact cause of arthritis is unknown.

Dementia is the progressive deterioration of the cognitive function of the brain due to the degeneration of the nerve endings that send impulses to the brain. Dementia describes a specific group of symptoms. These can include confusion, impaired memory, disorientation, personality changes, and the inability to make appropriate decisions. All too often someone with dementia knows that something is not right and they will do their best to hide this from others. It is frightening for them, and they will need you to be emotionally supportive during this stage of illness. Caregivers must be very observant and keep their loved one’s doctor aware of these changes. Moving someone with dementia can also make their confusion a lot worse, so it is important to keep changes to a minimum. When changes must take place, their dementia will often become worse, and they will need much support in adapting to these new changes. There are many types of dementia, but Alzheimers is the most well known form of dementia. Although it cannot be truly diagnosed until after a person’s death with a study of the brain in an autopsy, there are many symptoms that can lead a doctor to conclude Alzheimers in a patient. Caring for someone with dementia can be very stressful and at times overwhelming. Do not be afraid to speak up and ask for and accept help. Talk to your loved one’s doctor who may be able to provide treatment for problematic behaviors. There are also many different support groups available to help those that care for others. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to treat dementia.

Diabetes in the elderly is often due to poor dietary choices. They consume too many sugars and fats. With the elderly their bodies have a much harder time secreting the right amount of insulin to keep the blood sugars down. Diabetes in elderly is incurable and can only be kept under control through medication and diet. This can be difficult to encourage and you will find much resistance to change. All too often they are set in their ways and want to continue with their normal ways of life.

Parkinsons disease affects the nerve cells that go to the brain. Why it occurs remains a mystery. Parkinsons is a disease that can afflict the elderly and it is most known for the uncontrollable tremors and involuntary shaking. As the disease progresses, it will affect the brain. Elderly fall risks are high with this disease so it is of most important to make sure their surroundings are clear of clutter and safe. Making sure that furniture corners are padded will help as well in case of falls. Anything that may cause tripping such as small area rugs and electrical cords should be removed. As the symptoms get worse they may have trouble with talking, walking or doing the simple tasks of life. They can have difficulty with sleeping, chewing or swallowing. Depression will often set in with someone suffering from Parkinsons as the disease progresses. This disease tends to affect more men then women and usually starts in their fifties. However, it can start earlier in life for some.

Heart disease is America’s leading cause of death. It is also referred to as cardiovascular disease. This includes all disease that affects the heart including heart attack, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease and congenital heart disease. Symptoms and the severity of heart disease can vary greatly and should always be followed by a doctor. Heaviness in chest, discomfort, pain or aching in chest, arm or below the breastbone is very common. Shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, and dizziness are among some of the symptoms as well. Eating well, exercising, not smoking, and taking prescribed medications, are all ways to help promote healthier lifestyles and reduce the risks of heart disease.

Kidney disease is a growing concern with the elderly in America. There are multiple reasons for this. Elderly get kidney disease sometimes because of diabetes, but aging and hypertension along with many other factors can bring on kidney problems. Chronic Kidney disease is all too often diagnosed too late with the elderly as they are not usually sent to a nephrologist in time. Treatment at this late stage is not always given because of fears that they might not be able to withstand it.

The important thing for caregivers to remember is that they are not alone. It can be a very demanding and draining role for them. Seek out support in your community, get all the information and education pertaining to your loved one’s specific problems, communicate well with the doctors involved, and have back up support from other family members or special services. Do not ever feel that you failed your loved one if you come to the conclusion that it is time to place them in a nursing home. This is a reality for many and can be the best decision, although often the hardest to make. Remember you will be no good to them or yourself if you are burnt out and exhausted. Best wishes to all the caregivers out there in the world….You are very special people, and not everyone can do what you do!