Alzheimer’s disease impacts caregivers and well as patients

HOUGHTON – Amid the cluster of charts and lists on the wall for Marja Salani’s class for dementia caregivers is a quadrant: “Powerful” and “Powerless” from top to bottom, “negative” and “positive” from side to side.

“The goal of this class is to get them out of this lower-hand quadrant to make them feel better about what they’re doing,” said Salani, specialist in aging services at the Copper Country Mental Health Institute.

Alzheimer’s disease irreversibly affects both the people who have it and those who care for them. However, a growing emphasis is being put on classes and support services for caregivers.

As many as 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia among older people, according to the National Institute on Aging. Dementia is a cognitive loss that negatively affects a person’s ability to function in their daily life.

There’s no single lab test or imaging study that can conclusively point to Alzheimer’s, said Katriina Hopper, geriatrician at Portage Health. Instead, it’s diagnosed through a complete medical assessment.

“If a person suspects they or a loved one has Alzheimer’s, then it’s important to see a primary care physician, a geriatrician or a neurologist,” she said.

The average age of diagnosis is 60. And it gets more common with age: Some studies have shown that by 85, half of all people have some form of dementia.

The disease can take anywhere from two to 20 years to progress, though most people will live from eight to 10 years after diagnosis.

One of the people taking Salani’s 12-hour class is Peggy Laitila of Keweenaw Bay, whose husband of 58 years was diagnosed with the Alzhemier’s-related Lewy body dementia six years ago.

“When we first found out, I was really angry, but now I see there’s so many other people who have it,” she said. “It’s really nice to come to a class where you can talk to people and let some of your problems out and understand what’s going on, because dementia’s a disease – a very bad disease.”

Laitila thinks her husband’s dementia was accelerated by a fall down the stairs shortly before his diagnosis. His mother also had the disease.

Some risk factors, like genetics, can’t be modified, Hopper said. In other areas, people do have control. Especially once they get to middle age, they should watch their diet and keep a careful eye on blood pressure, high cholesterol and signs of heart disease.

“There’s some evidence that environment plays a role, but we don’t know the strength of the association yet,” Hopper said. “But the greatest risk factor is advancing age.”

Many caregivers are in a difficult position, Salani said, because they’re sandwiched between taking care of the older person and their own children.

Some of the strategies they’re taught include making sure the person has a daily routine, as well as how to find out what is stressing the person. Caregivers should also use “short, simple sentences,” not make excessive demands and get their charges to participate in activities they still enjoy.

“It’s up to the caregiver to provide that stability of routine, of doing activity for the person that that person still can do,” she said.

Laitila said the class has helped her better cope with Alzheimer’s. She’s also learned how to watch out for her own safety, after a stroke and hypertension brought on by the stress.

“If you get help from your in-laws, your friends or anybody, it helps,” she said.

For more information on the Creating Confident Caregivers class, call Salani at 370-7789. Other meeting times for the Western U.P. can be found at For @Home Approach, an at-home memory support service by Linette Abb, Brenda Tuovila and Lance Peterson, call 369-0535.