Is her declining health due to Alzheimer's?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's four years ago, and she has been in aged care for two months now because Dad could no longer look after her. I have noticed that she has lost a lot of weight, is walking very slowly, doesn't want to eat and refuses to take her medication. Dad's biggest concern now is that she is complaining of her teeth aching and her eyesight is deteriorating; sometimes she says she can't see. Is this common and is there anything we can do about it?

Expert Answer

Jytte Lokvig, PhD, coaches families and professional caregivers and designs life-enrichment programs and activities for patients with Alzheimer's disease and related dementia. Her workshops and seminars help caregivers and families create a healthy environment based on dignity and humor. She is the author of Alzheimer's A to Z: A Quick-Reference Guide.

It's doubtful that your mother's complaints are caused by Alzheimer's itself. However ailments can go undetected because a person with dementia has trouble conveying her aches, pains, and discomforts. Your mother needs relief to improve her life. I recommend that your mother has a thorough physical.

Since she has only been in her eldercare facility for a couple of months, it stands to reason that she feels lost and scared. Talk to the staff about creative ideas to get her involved with other residents and particularly to spark her interest in food. Some ideas are: small dishes with a few bites at a time. This helps her feel accomplished. Red dishes have shown to spark people's appetite. Provide the staff with a list of her favorite foods and drinks. The staff can help make her meals special by engaging her in dinner chat.

You don't mention what type of medication your mother is refusing to take. Talk to the staff about crushing tablets and offering them with something your mom likes, i.e. pudding, yogurt, applesauce or even ranch dressing. You may also talk to your pharmacist about alternative versions of the meds; many are available in liquid form, chewables, or patches.

You present a pretty long list of complaints that may have many causes. Here's a list of possible causes, with suggested solutions in parenthesis: Difficulty adapting to a new environment. (Ask staff members to join her at meals) Noise and confusion in the dining room. (Find a quiet space for her to eat.) Unfamiliar food. (Check with family on her likes and dislikes, and especially her favorites.) Too restless to sit still. (Give her finger food to eat on the go.) Too much food at one time. (Serve the meal in smaller portions on smaller plate.) Confusion with utensils. (Serve only one type of food at a time: spoon food, finger food, or fork food.) Difficulty seeing the food. (Have her eyes checked by an ophthalmologist. Also: serve food on colored dishes, preferably red, with no patterns.) Difficulty chewing. (See a dentist about cavities, periodontal disease, or ill-fitting dentures.) Low-grade infections. (Urinary tract infections are very common in the elderly.) Aches or pains anywhere, including ingrown toenails or ill-fitting shoes (See a podiatrist and check shoe size) Brief is soiled. (Adult diaper)

With her health back in balance, your mother should have many good years ahead of her.