Caregiver's Role in Caring for People with Alzheimer's

People with Alzheimer's disease are usually cared for by family members or friends, and the vast majority of people with Alzheimer's receive care in their own homes.1

Providing care for someone with Alzheimer's can change over time, based on symptom severity and the level of assistance needed. It can become very challenging for the caregiver. While caregivers provide the care necessary to help a person with Alzheimer's, they also need to take care of themselves as well.

Alzheimer's progression and the role of a caregiver

In the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, a person may only need some assistance and emotional support.2

If the caregiver is a partner or family member, this is a good time to work on care planning together, any legal and financial plans, and set them up with various support services. As the disease progresses and more nerve cells in the brain are damaged, the person will require more and more care.

Middle and late stages of Alzheimer's care

Caregiving in the middle and late stages of Alzheimer's disease will shift over time.

There may need to be several caregivers to share the stressors and various tasks. Daily routines need to be adapted, structure needs to be established, and various changes in behavior, communication, abilities to do everyday tasks, feeding, toileting, and dressing, will all need to be monitored and dealt with as necessary.3,4

Late-stage Alzheimer's in particular, around-the-clock care is necessary, and a trained home healthcare professional might be needed at times to assist with medical care, safely moving the person, changing soiled undergarments or bed pads, or feeding. Sometimes home caregiving cannot provide the level of assistance the individual needs and moving to a memory care home is necessary.4

Each case looks different

Each person's journey with Alzheimer's can look very different, and it's helpful to remember that. Some people progress very quickly through the disease stages, while others do not. Some stay longer in one particular stage, whereas others do not.

Try not to compare disease progression or caregiver duties as these can vary widely.

Complicated symptoms of progression

Alzheimer's disease is not simply memory loss. There are behaviors associated with the disease that can be very distressing for the caregiver. This is why it's helpful to talk to the person's doctor about any symptoms that arise, how to best deal with them, and become educated on ways to cope with the symptoms and help the person manage them. Especially as the disease progresses.

There are also training classes and support groups offered to caregivers to help cope and manage an Alzheimer's diagnosis. You can contact your local Alzheimer's organizations or go to Alz.org to find classes and support near you.

Long-distance caregiving

In the early stage of Alzheimer's disease, family members may be able to provide long-distance caregiving since the person may still be able to live fairly independently.

This will change as the disease progresses and the person needs someone closer and more often. While it may seem daunting, there are things that caregivers can do for the success of long-distance caregiving:5

  • Know everything you need to about the person's illness, medications, resources, and so forth: this will help you with planning and understanding care, talking to doctors, and assist in managing care.
  • Plan visits ahead of time. Errands the person might have to do, goals to achieve, doctor's appointments or treatments, caregiving responsibilities. This will help organize visits and ensure everything that needs to get done, gets done.
  • Don't forget about the person behind the disease. There's so much to do in caregiving, especially long-distance caregiving. It's easy to forget to just be with the person. Make time to just hang out or do something fun together.

Long-distance caregiving brings its own set of challenges. It may be worth looking into a local caregiver, even minimally, to help with caregiving basics that may not be possible long-distance. Local caregivers can also help observe the individual and keep long-distance caregivers informed and know when more intensive care becomes necessary.

Managing the Alzheimer's caregiver role

Caregiving is stressful, and caregivers for those with Alzheimer's disease report high levels of stress.6

Caregivers should take care of themselves in order to help reduce the risk of burnout, depression, anger, and staying healthy. Caregivers can't care for others if they themselves aren't well – you can't pour from an empty cup, as the saying goes.

Signs that caregivers may be under stress include:6

  • Anger at the person with Alzheimer’s disease
  • Social withdrawal
  • Depression or anxiety, irritability
  • Exhaustion that interferes with everyday, necessary activities or tasks
  • Sleeplessness
  • Health problems begin arising

Managing caregiver stress

If these symptoms arise on a regular basis or become chronic, a caregiver might be under significant stress. Managing stress in a healthy, productive way is helpful so that caregivers and the person with Alzheimer's both feel supported and the relationship doesn't suffer as a result.

Ways to manage stress include:6,7

  • Finding community resources to assist caregiving, like visiting nurses, in-home nurses, respite care, or adult day programs
  • Support groups for caregivers, either in-person or online
  • Counseling
  • Relaxation techniques like visualization, meditation or breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation
  • Exercise
  • Regular doctor visits to take care of general health and wellness
  • Taking breaks when necessary
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Asking for help when necessary
  • Maintaining social connections and not isolating oneself
  • Talking with clergy

The Alzheimer's caregiver role

Caregiving for someone with Alzheimer's is a wonderful thing to do, but it is not without its own stressors. Caregivers need to take time for themselves so that they are able to better take care of others.

If caregiving starts to become detrimental to your health or well-being, then talk to someone immediately. Everyone needs help sometimes.

How do you cope with your role as an Alzheimer's caregiver? Tell us in the comments below, or share your story with the community.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

Written by: Jaime Rochelle Herndon | Last reviewed: June 2019