Knowing Alzheimer's symptoms can help families prepare for the disease

Forgetting important dates. Confusing a TV remote for a cellphone. Not recognizing family members. For patients with Alzheimer’s disease, this is a reality.

Blanche Arlene Fly, a Norfolk native diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, deals with these and similar situations every day. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors die with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia — more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. In 2018, an estimated 5.7 million Americans of all ages have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Dementia is a generalized term that characterizes symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills. Although there are many types, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60 percent to 80 percent of dementia cases. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that causes brain tissue to shrink, which leads to common issues including memory loss, loss of ability to complete routine tasks, judgment impairment, difficulty communicating, and emotional outbursts. While Alzheimer’s is irreversible, on average patients live four to eight years after diagnosis. They can live as long as 20 years. Alzheimer’s affects people in different ways and the rate of progression varies amongst individuals.

Noticing Alzheimer’s symptoms can help lead to a diagnosis of the disease early, but the symptoms can be difficult to spot for those not aware of the disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, common symptoms include:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life;
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems;
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks;
  • Confusion with time or place;
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.

Fly was diagnosed last year with Alzheimer’s, a disease that also affected her mother. She said she was shocked and worried when she received her diagnosis. Dealing with Alzheimer’s is difficult and knowing her brain is deteriorating is frightening. Fly said she gets mad at herself when she can’t remember certain information or articulate her thoughts. She also said she has dealt with depression most of her life, a common theme among Alzheimer’s patients.

According to the British Journal of Psychiatry, depressed adults over the age of 50 were 65 percent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than similarly aged people who weren’t depressed. While the disease can be daunting, Fly said she has a support group that understands her condition. That includes her family, lifelong friends and Kipper, her 17-year-old dog she called “her heart and soul.”

An Alzheimer’s diagnosis does not affects just one person: It changes the lives of family members, friends and caregivers. Cheri McVay, Fly’s daughter and a registered nurse, said it is difficult to see her mother’s demeanor change. McVay said her mother is very educated, hard working, and a caring individual who raised not only her own children, but kids in the neighborhood as well.

“To see that and to see her now it’s hard, it’s very hard,” McVay said.

Being a caregiver can be discouraging, McVay said. There are times when she unintentionally directs frustration toward her mother. McVay said she knows her mother’s forgetfulness is caused by a disease she can’t control, but said sometimes she just wants to say “Why don't you know? Why don’t you remember?”

Family members can find it challenging to see a loved one’s personality change or see them lose a sense of reality. After a diagnoses, “no day is going to ever be the same,” said Melissa Twitty, a memory care director and certified nursing assistant at the Dominion Village in Chesapeake.

Watching her mom and her grandmother live with Alzheimer’s has made McVay aware that the same thing could happen to her. She said she gets scared every time she gets forgetful. When her daughter asked if the same thing that happened to grandma was going to happen to her, all McVay could say was “I don’t know.”

While living with someone who has Alzheimer’s will be challenging at times, Twitty suggested not to put many expectations on them. That can create stressful and confusing situations for patients and lead to disappointment for caregivers and family members. Be patient, and don’t treat an Alzheimer's patient like a child, she said. It can be difficult, but these patients are adults and should be treated as such with dignity and respect, she said.

That experience can be daunting, McVay said. “It takes a big toll on you emotionally.”

Twitty recommends attending support groups, visiting the Alzheimer’s Association, and researching the disease to increase awareness. Online message boards, such as ALZConnnected can support families experiencing similar challenges.

For Fly, living with Alzheimer's is difficult, but she's optimistic. “I won’t let it rule me.”

Learn more

For more information about or help with Alzheimer's disease, call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at (800) 272-3900.