Health & Fitness

Knowing Alzheimer’s early signs can help family get a quick start on coping with changes

Gary Blevins holds his wife, Carol, as they share a moment while watching TV in her room at Via Christi Village. Gary began noticing signs of dementia about 11 years ago. Carol has been in a memory care unit since 2011.
Gary Blevins holds his wife, Carol, as they share a moment while watching TV in her room at Via Christi Village. Gary began noticing signs of dementia about 11 years ago. Carol has been in a memory care unit since 2011. Courtesy

The signs were there.

For Gary Blevins, a retired financial planner, and Christy Barnett, a bank branch manager, their loved ones were exhibiting changes in behavior that led to eventual diagnoses of Alzheimer’s disease.

Blevins’ wife, Carol, started having problems doing her job at Learjet. Darrell Farmer, Barnett’s father and a veterinarian in her hometown of Tucumcari, N.M., started being quick-tempered and acting suspicious about conversations when Barnett went home to help her mother, Nancy, recover from back surgery.

 

Researchers at the KU Alzheimer's Disease Center, 4350 Shawnee Mission Parkway in Fairway have established the facility as one of the top research centers in the nation dedicated to attacking Alzheimer's disease. (2016)

Their loved ones are among the estimated 5.7 million Americans of all ages who are living with Alzheimer’s, according to the latest statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association. The majority of those living with the brain disease, a form of dementia that impacts memory, thinking and reasoning skills, are 65 and older. About 200,000 Americans under 65 have the disease.

The signs that Greg Blevins and Barnett noticed were more than just lapses in memory. There were changes in behavior and in having conversations, difficulties in doing once-familiar tasks and more. Those are the signs to look for, say experts.

“People get older and their memory is not as good, but that can be normal aging,” said Katie Rosell, a neurologist with Neurology Consultants of Kansas in Wichita. “Look for changes in activities and functions,” in trying to spot the early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s, she said. “When we get concerned, it’s because behaviors or normal functions become different or difficult.”

Frequently asking the same questions or retelling stories are other signs, Rosell said.

About 11 years ago, Blevins started seeing some of those signs in his wife. One night she repeatedly told him that their daughter had called earlier in the day. Later she divulged she was having problems working with a familiar software program at work.

He found an online cognition test and suggested they both take it, telling her he was wondering how his memory was doing. He passed; she failed.

Over the next four years, he cared for her at home and saw more of the behavior exhibited by those with the disease. At the store, she’d buy the same four products. She got into what Blevins called “a mean mood,” and would loudly make disparaging remarks about him in public. She’d wander away from home and not know where she was. She started hugging complete strangers.

Since 2011, she’s been in a memory care unit. Now, his 73-year-old wife of 52 years can’t walk, talk or feed herself. Blevins visits her every day, to feed her dinner.

Barnett described some of her father’s early Alzheimer’s behavior as almost paranoid, as he tried to eavesdrop on conversations. She thinks he knew something was happening to his mind.

“But he didn’t know what it was and he found it terrifying,” she said.

When her mother needed to be readmitted to the hospital for a complication after her back surgery, the stress of the situation caused even more bizarre behavior.

That was about 10 years ago. Later, when she and her family moved her parents to a senior community in Amarillo, Texas, to be closer to her sister, Vicki, they discovered that the notebooks that he once used to jot down information about the animals he treated had become his memory aids and a sort of diary.

They’d often seen him with his pad and pen in hand as they talked, but they hadn’t realized he was jotting down notes about conversations so that he could join in or remember what had been said. One entry noted “Bad day.” That was the day he filled his diesel truck with gas.

His behavior when they dined out also changed. Rather than read the menu, he’d ask companions what they were having and then order the same, Barnett said.

Barnett, who makes the 6-hour drive from Wichita to Amarillo about once a month, said she’s now noticing early signs of Alzheimer’s in her mother, who currently resides in the community’s independent living housing. Her dad, 88, is in the memory care unit.

Her mother, Barnett said, often can’t track the days on her calendar, needs to be reminded about the start time of chapel and tells elaborate stories and will deny or can’t recall the details a short time later. A formerly “snappy dresser” who had once hoped to be a fashion designer, she often can’t match colors or patterns, Barnett said.

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease involves reviewing a patient’s medical and other history and performing various cognition tests, Rosell said. Imaging tests, such as an MRI, can show whether another condition, like a stroke, is affecting the brain or show patterns of loss that can be suggestive of Alzheimer’s.

Rosell recommends that a loved one concerned about someone exhibiting early signs or symptoms accompany the patient to help provide insight into the person’s behavior, too.

Seeing a doctor can help rule out other medical conditions that could cause memory loss or changes in behavior, experts say. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, getting an early diagnosis is important, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, to help loved ones determine appropriate care for the patient.

10 early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

1. Memory impairment – like forgetting important dates or repeatedly asking for the same information – and relying more on memory aids like lists.

2. Challenges in concentrating, planning or solving problems, like following a familiar recipe or keeping financial records.

3. Difficulty doing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure, such as following the rules of a favorite game or knowing the route to a familiar location.

4. Confusion with time or place, such as losing track of dates or time or figuring out how they got to a location.

5. Trouble understanding visual images, like color or contrast, and spatial relationships, like how far away something is.

6. Problems with words in speaking or writing, such as struggling to join or have a conversation or making up words for familiar things.

7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps, also accusing others of stealing.

8. Decreased or poor judgment, like giving away money or falling for scams.

9. Withdrawal from work and social activities, often caused by changes such as not being able to remember how to do a favorite activity, join a conversation and such.

10. Changes in mood or personality.

Source: Alzheimer’s Association

Wichita Walk to End Alzheimer’s

The Alzheimer’s Association’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s is its largest event to raise awareness and money for care, support and research programs. In Wichita, the walk, sponsored by the Central and Western Kansas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, will happen Saturday, Oct. 13, at Intrust Bank Arena, 500 E. Waterman.

Registration begins at 8 a.m., followed by a 10 a.m. ceremony and the 2-mile walk at 11 a.m. For more information, contact walk manager Hillary Steindler-Nolan at 316-267-7333 or hasteindlernolan@alz.org.

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