How to care for someone with Alzheimer’s disease
Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s can be rewarding but challenging. Anyone in this role may benefit from some tips to help their loved ones and themselves.
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia. It destroys brain cells and affects a person’s memory, thinking, and behavior.
Many people with Alzheimer’s receive daily assistance and care from family members, partners, or close friends. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 63% of people whose loved ones have Alzheimer’s disease can expect to provide care for 5 years or longer.
If you are a caregiver, this can take a toll on your well-being.
This article identifies 12 tips to help people care for someone with Alzheimer’s, how to care for yourself, and when to seek professional help.
For more on dementia, see our dedicated hub page.
1. Learn about Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, which means symptoms worsen over time. As a caregiver, you may feel as if you are constantly facing new challenges.
Understanding what to expect with Alzheimer’s can help you relate to your loved one’s experience and plan ahead.
Alzheimer’s disease develops in roughly three stages.
Mild: A person with mild signs and symptoms may still be able to function in professional and social activities, but they may have difficulty with some tasks involving thinking and memory.
Moderate: This involves significant memory loss, confusion, and physical symptoms. It becomes harder for the person to recognize family members, follow instructions, or carry out daily tasks.
Severe: The person may need help with most tasks. They may experience incontinence, have difficulty chewing or swallowing, and become unaware of their environment.
However, it’s worth noting that the stages of Alzheimer’s vary. The disease affects individuals differently, and a person may be able to do certain things one day but not another, depending on how they feel.
Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease.
2. Create a routine
A constant daily routine can help reinforce a sense of familiarity for a person with Alzheimer’s, and caregivers can help with this.
Some changes are unavoidable, such as introducing a new care provider or switching care settings. Individuals with Alzheimer’s may need time to adjust to new people and places, but implementing changes gradually can help.
3. Plan activities
As a caregiver, keeping your loved one engaged and active with daily occupations can provide stimulation and help pass the time. It can also provide enjoyable moments for you to share.
- exercising, such as walking, stretching, and light weight training
- dancing or listening to music
- playing ball or other simple games
- household chores, such as folding laundry and gardening
- going to a restaurant, museum, park, or movie
- visiting friends and family
Arrange outings around the time of day when your loved one is at their best, and plan to make your way home if they start to get tired.
Learn more about activities to try when caring for someone with Alzheimer’s.
4. Letting others know
Some caregivers carry small business cards to inform others, such as service workers, about their loved one’s condition. You can hand these over discretely when appropriate.
The cards may say something like “My partner has Alzheimer’s disease and may say or do unexpected things. Thank you for your understanding.”
You may be able to persuade your loved one to wear an identity bracelet that has their name, address, and emergency contact details on it. Alternatively, try a tracker watch in case they wander off or get lost as they start to lose their bearings.
Learn about behavioral disturbances in dementia.
5. Promote ongoing communication
Alzheimer’s disease can significantly impact a person’s ability to communicate with others.
The person may:
- have difficulty interpreting or remembering specific words
- lose their train of thought mid-sentence
- feel sad or distressed when they cannot find the words to express themselves
Ways you can help include:
- maintaining eye contact and smiling
- holding their hand, if appropriate
- asking only one question at a time
- using the person’s name
- using open and relaxed body language
- speaking with a calm voice
- asking yes/no questions if the person has trouble explaining
Encouraging communication allows your loved one to participate in conversations or activities and express their needs and wishes.
Learn more about how to communicate with someone with dementia.
5. Help them eat a nutritious diet
It is vital to help those with Alzheimer’s eat a nutritious, balanced diet and stay hydrated.
A person may have difficulty with eating habits, nutritional intake, and body weight if they:
- are unable to remember when they last ate
- become less active due to mobility problems
- become dependent on highly processed foods
- forget how to cook
- eat the same foods every day
- are no longer aware of mealtimes
- lose their ability to smell and taste foods
- have trouble chewing and swallowing
To ensure your loved one gets enough nutritious food, try:
- serving meals at the same time every day
- preparing fruits and vegetables of different colors to make an attractive plate and ensure a range of nutrients
- making finger foods, such as cheese, fruits, or sandwiches cut into sections
- removing distractions by turning off the radio or television
- selecting foods that are easy to chew and swallow
- focusing on foods the person usually enjoys
- giving warning before touching the person, for instance, “I’m just going to wipe your mouth.”
Learn more about eating and drinking with dementia.
6. Boost their self-esteem
Having a mental health condition such as Alzheimer’s can affect a person’s confidence and self-esteem.
Caregivers can help boost a person’s self-esteem by:
- focusing on what the person can do, not what they cannot do
- value what they have to offer, even if it’s just a smile
- continue to treat the person as themselves
- recognize the person has lived a full life with loved ones and achievements — maybe use photos to bring these to mind
- include the person in conversations and avoid talking about them as if they are not there
- use the person’s name when talking and speak to them as an adult
- try to find out their wishes and respect those wishes where possible
Looking and feeling good can help relieve some of the anxiety of Alzheimer’s. It can enable a person to feel “more like themselves.”
Ways to help your loved one with grooming include:
- arranging for regular haircuts and other hair care
- helping them put on makeup if they usually wear it
- giving a gentle hand massage
- ensuring clothing is loose and comfortable
- when buying clothes, let them choose between two or three items
- buying clothing and footwear with Velcro or zippers instead of laces and buttons
Learn more about regaining and boosting self-esteem.
7. Encouraging regular hygiene practices
People with Alzheimer’s can sometimes develop a resistance to washing, changing clothes, and other hygiene practices. They may not want someone else to touch them or do tasks they used to do themselves.
Caregivers can help by:
- doing personal tasks at the same time, such as brushing your teeth
- encouraging the person to shave if they usually do, helping if necessary
- laying the day’s clothes out in the order of putting them on
- keeping the person’s fingernails and toenails trimmed
- allowing extra time for personal care, such as washing and dressing
- discreetly getting them washable incontinence pants or pads, if necessary
Encouraging good hygiene can help prevent discomfort and health issues, such as infections.
Learn why good personal hygiene is important.
8. Keep them safe
People with Alzheimer’s may feel unsafe in everyday situations. Sometimes, the changes that occur with Alzheimer’s may put them in actual danger.
Some safety tips include:
- making sure the person has sturdy, comfortable shoes
- putting brightly-colored tape on the edge of steps
- padding any sharp corners on furniture
- limiting mirrors in the house
- placing “hot” and “cold” stickers near taps
- turning the boiler temperature down to avoid burns
- installing safety locks on the stove
- making sure they take their medication correctly
If the person is still driving, look for signs that their driving may be a danger to others.
The National Institute on Aging has more advice on driving and people with Alzheimer’s.
Learn more about driving and dementia.
9. Help them keep their animal companion
Companion animals can provide continuing love and companionship for people with Alzheimer’s, especially if they have previously had pets. In the early stages, caring for a pet can help them stay active.
As caring for a pet becomes more difficult, you can help by considering ways to keep them together.
Look out for local charities that provide dog walking, cat sitting, and temporary fostering services for older adults with health conditions.
Some organizations, such as Meals on Wheels America, may deliver pet food.
Learn about pet therapy and how animals can help mental health.
10. Sort out administrative tasks
As Alzheimer’s progresses, decision-making becomes harder. It is essential to address some administrative processes before this happens.
Among other processes, this will usually involve:
- arranging durable power of attorney to manage financial, legal, and medical issues
- establishing a will
- making a living will regarding the person’s medical wishes
It may also involve looking at options for live-in or residential care for the individual when looking after them at home is no longer possible.
Enlisting family support and discussing these matters with other people who are significant to the individual can help smooth this process.
Learn what end-of-life planning involves
11. Get support
Ask your doctor about local support for caregivers. This may be through a local or online support group, a charity, social services, or another organization. Respite, education, and accessing support are some of the many ways they can help.
The Alzheimer’s Association help and support service and the National Institute on Aging provide guides and other support for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.
Find out more about support groups for caregivers of people with dementia.
12. Self-care for caregivers
Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s can affect your life in many ways, including your physical and mental well-being. It can lead to caregiver burnout.
You may feel you need to prioritize your loved one’s well-being above your own, but you will be unable to provide quality care if you are unwell.
The following self-care tips may help reduce stress, cultivate compassion, and ward off fatigue.
- Talk about it. It can be hard to share about the challenges of caregiving, but opening up about frustrations and fears can help relieve emotional tension.
- Ask for help. If you do not have loved ones nearby to share tasks with, a local support group may be able to help. Enlist help with specific tasks, such as sitting with your loved one for an hour while you go for a walk.
- Get enough sleep every night. Not getting 7–9 hours of sleep each night can affect your mental and physical well-being.
- Exercise daily. Physical activity can relieve stress, increases energy levels, and improve sleep. Try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.
- Practice self-compassion. Caregivers often hold themselves to unrealistic standards. Remember, nobody get it right all the time, and it is not unusual to feel anger, frustration, and sadness at times.
- Get mental health support. If you feel your role is affecting your mental health, seek medical help. A doctor can offer help for anxiety and depression and possibly specialist counseling.
- Have a list of useful phone numbers: Keep the contact details for healthcare professionals and other support tos hand in case you need them.
Learn more here
- What can you do if a person with dementia becomes angry or aggressive?
- When can a support group help, and how do you find one?
- What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?
- How do you talk with someone who has dementia?
When to seek professional help
People with Alzheimer’s disease will need more care over time.
Caregivers may want to consider seeking professional help if they feel they can no longer cope or if their loved one:
- needs full assistance with daily and personal care activities
- loses the ability to walk
- experiences a seizure
- unexpectedly loses a significant amount of body weight
- experiences a fall or other type of injury
- has periods of anxiety or agitation
- tends to wander away or get lost
Caregivers with health conditions, such as chronic stress, fatigue, or caregiver depression, may require professional assistance. You should seek help at once if you find yourself thinking of suicide.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
Click here for more links and local resources.
Caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease may experience an array of positive and negative emotions when helping their loved ones.
Ways a caregiver can help a loved one with Alzheimer’s range from establishing a daily routine to self-care and seeking professional help as the condition progresses.
Self-care is a vital aspect of caregiving. Caregivers can prevent adverse health effects from stress by building a strong support network, protecting their physical health, and practicing self-compassion.