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Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and What to Expect

Elderly woman with Alzheimer's.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, meaning symptoms will gradually change and become more severe.

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October 28, 2011

First blanking on a grandchild’s name, then accusing a son or daughter of stealing personal belongings, to eventually not recognizing close family members—this is the heart-breaking long goodbye, also known as Alzheimer’s disease. One of the scariest parts of Alzheimer’s can be the unknown of how it will affect your loved one day to day, month to month and year to year.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, meaning symptoms will gradually change and become more severe. While these changes affect everyone in different ways and at different paces, it does follow patterns that enable you to understand the affected person’s level of cognitive impairment and plan accordingly for the additional care that will be needed along the way.

The phases of Alzheimer’s are typically grouped into three main stages:

  • Mild (early)
  • Moderate (middle)
  • Severe (late)

The following information, gathered from Caring.com, the Alzheimer’s Association and Dr. Barry Reisberg’s Global Deterioration Scale, describes each stage in more detail.

Mild

Characteristics:

  • Repeating questions or comments without realizing it, often within the same conversation
  • Misplacing objects or storing them in an unusual spot
  • Difficulty comprehending, retaining and recalling new information (yet memories from long ago are vivid and easily recalled)
  • “Good” days where your loved one seems completely normal and “bad” days when his or her cognitive impairment seems more pronounced and interferes with daily life
  • Avoiding regular activities that have become more difficult in order to minimize embarrassment and frustration. Mood changes may accompany these frustrations

Care Considerations:

  • For the most part, those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s can remain independent in carrying out their normal activities of daily living
  • It will become increasingly helpful or necessary to provide assistance with complex tasks like managing finances, keeping track of appointments, following a recipe and going to unfamiliar places. Whether it’s you, another family member, a neighbor or a hired companion who stops by several times a week, it’s important to have a support system in place
  • If incidents of getting lost, locking the keys in the car or house, or forgetting to turn off the oven become more prevalent or hazardous to the safety of your loved one and others, it’s time to re-evaluate the level of care

Moderate

Characteristics:

  • Greater difficulty with social situations and communicating appropriately
  • Decreased sense of time
  • Increased irritability due to frustrations from declining abilities
  • Withdrawal from daily activities that have become too difficult to handle
  • More frequent and prolonged memory lapses
  • Periods of disorientation, regardless of familiarity with environment
  • Difficulty reasoning and making good judgments
  • Changes in behavior that may including wandering; rummaging; delusions or hallucinations; expressions of anger aggression, or anxiety; shouting; and disrupted sleeping and eating patterns
  • Care Considerations:

    • Daily support is needed during this stage of Alzheimer’s, whether from family members or trained professional caregivers
    • External memory cues and verbal prompting should accompany every activity
    • Maintain a daily routine and minimize change as much as possible
    • Allow extra time to perform tasks
    • If violent or aggressive behaviors become frequent, incontinence becomes an issue, or you see a decrease in mobility, talk to your loved one’s doctor. It may be time for a more advanced level of care

    Severe

    Characteristics:

    • Difficulty or complete inability to recognize familiar people, including close family members and even self
    • A lot of time spent sleeping
    • Nonsense speech including babbling or making strange noises
    • Loss of motor skills and sense of touch
    • Cognitive abilities similar to those of a 2 to 5 year old

    Care Considerations:

    • Someone entering late stage Alzheimer’s will require personal care assistance to bathe and use the toilet or manage incontinence
    • 24/7 care is needed as the person becomes completely dependent on others
    • Safety and fall-prevention measures must be taken to accommodate decline in mobility
    • May become more susceptible to other illnesses
    • Even though the person with Alzheimer’s may not seem to remember, recognize or respond to anything, he or she can still feel personal touch and loving attention
    • Depending on the severity of symptoms and behaviors, skilled nursing, palliative or hospice care may be needed

    No matter which stage your loved one falls into, it’s important to focus on what he or she CAN do rather than which abilities have declined. Helping a loved one through such devastating changes puts a lot of stress on you as the caregiver to continue providing the best care possible. But whether or not it seems as though your loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia can understand and appreciate your efforts, know that he or she will always be able to feel your love.

    The more you know, the better your loved one's care will be. Free online training and expert tips at HelpforAlzheimersFamilies.com

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    Thoughts and stories from others
    1. January 16, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Posted by Donna Hogan

      I am wishing the same for mom that the Lord takes her releasing from the grip Alzheimer's has on her for the last 9 years! She's in the last stages and it's hard but better some ways , no more running out of the house.

      Reply

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