Author’s note: I originally posted this in June 2013, but I will now be reposting this every month, because it is one of the most important ways in which we can help and support our loved ones with dementias, Alzheimer’s Disease, and other age-related illnesses (“Going Gentle Into That Good Night: A Practical and Informative Guide For Fulfilling the Circle of Life For Our Loved Ones with Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease” offers a more comprehensive list of the areas in which we can offer help and support to our loved ones).
Today’s post will discuss our role as medical advocates and medical support for our loved ones suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s disease. Here I will provide practical advice and suggestions, from my own experience, in managing the medical aspect as easy, as straightforward, and as un-disruptive for our loved ones as possible.
The very first thing we need to do as caregivers is to make sure medical wishes and medical legal authority – medical power of attorney – are documented and authorized (primary care physicians can do this; I suggest getting them notarized as well). Hopefully, these have been discussed enough so that either our loved ones have already taken care of them or we know what they want and are able to execute them ourselves.
For anyone reading this who is not a caregiver or suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, now is the time to think about these because time and chance happen to us all. For those of us who are caregivers, these are documents we need to locate and keep in one place.
A medical power of attorney document designates who will make decisions when the person drawing up the document is unable to.
A living will essentially specifies whether a person wants everything done possible to keep them alive, no matter how long, how futile, and how expensive or whether only comfort care is given when it’s clear that the end of life is at hand.
A DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) document states that the person does not want to be resuscitated if he or she stops breathing.
I suggest getting a briefcase or backpack to keep all the documents related to the medical care for our loved ones in. The briefcase or backpack should be accessible at all times, so it goes everywhere we and our loved ones go.
The medical power of attorney, living will, and DNR should be kept together in a folder in the briefcase or backpack. The other items in this backpack should include medical history documents and an up-to-date list of of medications (I’ve attached a sample Excel spreadsheet you can download and for this). Get an inexpensive wallet to put a photo id and Medicare Part A and Part B cards in and keep that in the briefcase or backpack as well. Always have something (electronic or pen and paper) to take notes with.
It is important to remember that we caretakers have a responsibility to advocate for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease with all medical professionals (primary care physicians, psychiatrists, nurses, dentists, hospital staff, home health staff, and hospice staff). However, it is equally important to remember that, unless our loved ones are in the dying process and, therefore, unresponsive, that we need to include them in all conversations, explain to them what is being discussed and why, and make sure the medical personnel include them as well.
While our loved ones may not understand everything, we must not treat nor let anyone else treat them as if they are invisible. This is probably one of the greatest gifts of love and respect we can show them.
We have to usually initiate this by stopping the conversation the medical professional is having with us, turn to our loved ones and hold their hands, make eye contact, and explain. Eventually, the medical professional will make eye contact with both us and our loved ones.
The reality is that we don’t really know how much our loved ones comprehend or understand. It’s my personal belief that they understand more than the diseases allow them to respond to. I also know that touch and inclusion are two basic needs we all share as humans, so it’s essential that our loved ones never feel excluded or unloved.
Hospitalizations are hard on elderly people. I don’t know all the reasons why, so I wouldn’t begin to speculate (although I have some opinions about it) as to why. For our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, hospitalizations are not just hard, but extremely traumatic because of unfamiliarity of everything: people, place, and routine. Going into a hospitalization, we as caregivers must be aware that it will be a setback for our loved ones when they come home.
Because of the traumatic effect of hospitalizations on our loved ones, it is critical that we as caregivers stay with them as much as we’re able during the hospitalizations. We are, even if some of the time they don’t know who we are, familiar. And our presence can help neutralize some of the fear and anxiety that often occurs during hospitalizations.
Always have a “hospital bag” with clothes, toiletries, and other things our loved ones need packed. That bag goes every time we take our loved ones to the ER or with us as we follow an EMS transport. (It is imperative to be sure to wash the clothes from the hospital stay immediately and separately from any other laundry when we get home.)
Spend the night for as long as our loved ones are hospitalized. I know, because I’ve spent way more nights than I could ever count with my mom – even before her dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease diagnoses because I didn’t want her to be all alone – in the hospital, that there’s iffy sleep, awful coffee, and not-so-great food. But our loved ones are worth it.
But spending the night has an additional, and equally-important, benefit. Most doctors make rounds between 7 pm and 8 pm in the evening and between 6 am and 8 am in the morning, so by spending the night we’re always there when the doctors are there so we can be current on what’s going on with our loved ones. I’ve found that, in general, hospital nurses either don’t know much or are too busy to take the time to give you real updates, so the only in-depth information you’re going to get will be from the doctors.
The other benefit of staying with our loved ones is that we can make sure they get the quality care and attention they need. It’s been my experience that most hospitals simply to don’t have enough staff to provide much personalized care, so if there is no one there with the patient, the patient just has to wait until someone gets around to him or her. By us being there, we can ensure that our loved ones are clean, taken care of, and not uncomfortable in any way physically. That’s one of the best ways we can serve them.
As I mentioned, expect a setback after hospitalization. It can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. Recovery will eventually occur, but it’s important to know that it will never return to the pre-hospitalization state. That’s just the nature of these diseases.
It’s important to be patient, loving, kind, gentle, and tender no matter what. It’s my opinion that most of the behavior is a way of expressing fear, so it’s important that we allay those fears and help our loved ones feel safe again. It takes time and a lot of deep breaths sometimes, but this is another way we show them how much we love them.