A lot of academic ink has been spilled on how Alzheimer's affects the mind, but not much on how it impacts one’s physical ability. Alzheimer’s or any progressive cognitive disorder impairs the brain, the “control center” of the body. It commands many essential functions, like memory, emotion, and mobility. With this in mind, the damage Alzheimer’s inflicts on the brain can lead to declining physical functions.
Read more to understand how brain deterioration can result in poor physical functioning in those with Alzheimer’s. Plus, some tips on what you can do as a family caregiver to support your aging mom or dad.
Alzheimer’s and Its Physical Symptoms
Alzheimer’s has become synonymous with memory loss. The painted image is usually that of a person who first forgets their phone number and address, and eventually, the most important events and people in their lives.
However, it also manifests physical symptoms. Sometimes, these physical changes appear even before memory loss. If you suspect a senior parent has dementia because they forget things easily, look out for these physical indications, too. It may help you detect signs of memory impairment.
1. Decreased fine motor skills
People use fine motor skills to move the small muscles in the hands, fingers, and eyes in coordination. Brain damage due to Alzheimer’s results in the loss of coordination, preventing one from completing simple tasks, such as buttoning clothes, tying the shoes, or using utensils. In its early stage, Alzheimer’s typically doesn’t reduce a person’s fine motor skills.
If you see a loved one having trouble doing any hand-eye coordination task, don’t assume it's Alzheimer’s. Sensory and motor symptoms, such as numbness or shaking of the hands, are also signs of Parkinson’s disease and other conditions that are not Alzheimer’s or dementia-related. Visit your doctor to get a confirmed diagnosis.2. Repetitive behaviors
Have you noticed your loved one repeating the same actions? Whether it’s frequently opening and closing a drawer, filling a pet’s food bowl over and over again, or constantly checking that the door is locked—these are all signs of Alzheimer’s. Why do they behave this way?
Seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s exhibit repetitive behaviors because they can’t recall doing the same actions just minutes ago. Hence they will do tasks recurrently. Repeating behaviors usually manifest in the earlier stages of a cognitive decline.3. Poor hygiene
If your senior mom or dad used to be meticulous about their outward appearance, you’d see a decline in personal hygiene if they have Alzheimer’s. They may forget or start to neglect basic personal care activities, like bathing, brushing their teeth, shaving, and changing their clothes.
The brain changes may confuse your loved one about simple things, like how to wash their hair. They may also feel overwhelmed by all the products on their bathroom counter and may even mistake one thing for another, like mistaking a tube of lotion for toothpaste. All of these can lead to poor hygiene.4. Low energy
While everyone is unique and moves through the stages of Alzheimer’s in different ways, most people with the disease experience a drop in their energy levels. It’s one of the early indications of Alzheimer’s that worsen as the condition turns severe.
If a loved one enjoyed several hobbies, they would likely stop getting involved in these activities after their diagnosis.5. Sleep problems
The quality of sleep reduces as people age. Getting shut-eye is twice more challenging for people with Alzheimer’s as they also often have sleeping disorders. Their sleep problems may include:
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
- Daytime napping
- Changes in the sleep-wake pattern
A loved one may wake up more often and stay awake longer at night. If they can’t sleep, they will call out for others or wander around, which can disrupt their caregiver’s or family members’ sleep.
Based on clinical data, about half of individuals with Alzheimer's disease experience OSA after diagnosis. Symptoms include loud snoring, episodes of stopped breathing while asleep, choking or gasping, and other respiratory signs due to airway blockage.
Your senior loved one may become extremely drowsy during the day after not getting any sleep. They may also feel agitated in the late afternoon or early evening. At these times, they may experience sundowning, characterized by irritability, agitation, restlessness, or confusion as daylight starts to fade.
According to experts, most individuals with severe Alzheimer’s spend around 40% of their supposed sleeping time awake. Alternatively, they use their time during the day to sleep. In extreme cases, some may have sleep-wake inversion where they sleep during the day and stay awake during the night.
Doctors usually prescribe melatonin supplements, sleeping pills to those with difficulty sleeping, and an assistive sleeping device to treat sleep apnea. Visit your doctor to get a personalized treatment plan for a senior relative with dementia that co-exists with a sleeping disorder.
What can you do as a family caregiver?
You can support a loved one in many ways, especially if they haven’t moved into an assisted or memory care community yet. With your help, they can stay at home, receive care, and be with the rest of the family for longer.
Below, we list down some ways to support a family member with Alzheimer’s:
1. Keep them safe.
Many everyday situations can jeopardize the safety of a loved one with Alzheimer’s. For example, they may not understand terms such as “Warning” in a household cleaning product or a “Wet Floor” signage in the bathroom. Here are some safety tips to consider if they want to remain at home temporarily
- Install a raised toilet seat, grab bars, shower chair, handheld shower, and other senior-friendly bathroom tools.
- Pad any sharp corners on furniture.
- Make sure that they wear sturdy, well-fitting, and comfortable shoes.
- Install safety locks on appliances and doors.
- Tape down rugs and carpets (or remove them altogether).
- Turn the boiler temperature down to avoid burns.
Your loved one will feel better and stronger with exercise. Any form of physical activity helps keep the joints, muscles, and heart in good shape. Join your loved one in their morning exercise routine. You can do yoga, take short walks, or tend to the garden together. Doing these activities will benefit their physical and mental health.3. Consider physical or occupational therapy.
When physical ability begins to hit its limitation, you may want to consider physical or occupational therapy to preserve mobility. Physical and occupational therapists can teach your aging mom or dad how to build strength, maintain good balance, and reduce fall risks. The therapist can also visit your home to identify potential safety hazards and offer safety precautions.
Preserving Physical Ability Through a Healthy Lifestyle
Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t just diminish brain functions but also physical ability. It can reduce one’s fine motor skills and lead to repetitive behaviors, poor hygiene, and sleeping troubles. Get advice from your physician to treat sleeping problems. Meanwhile, you can also hire a caregiver to solve personal care concerns.
Encourage your loved one to exercise, keep them safe at home, and enlist a physical or occupational therapist to preserve mobility skills. Change their diet as well to include more greens and fruits. The Mediterranean and MIND diets are popular to benefit brain functions. These lifestyle changes can positively impact your senior loved one’s overall health.
Syed has years of experience dealing with people, understanding their needs, and helping them find solutions to their problems.
As a Certified Senior Advisor (CSA), Certified Dementia Practitioner (CDP), Certified Montessori Dementia Care Professional (CMDCP), Syed is committed to working closely with Senior and their family knowing what is it like for individuals facing a challenging time, at times groping in dark trying to figure what is the appropriate next step or care level for their unique situation.
Syed and Senex Memory Advisors are fully committed to working closely with families in creating a personalized, step-by-step process memory care plan at zero cost.