Alzheimer's Association encourages checking on family members with disease, symptoms

The Alzheimer's Association said it typically sees an increase in calls to its 24-hour helpline during and after Thanksgiving and Christmas.

When family members return home for the holidays it's not unusual for them to notice cognitive changes in a relative that could indicate Alzheimer's disease, said Michelle Barclay, vice president of program services, Alzheimer's Association Minnesota-North Dakota chapter.

The Alzheimer's Association hotline can be reached at 1-800-272-3900.

Serious memory problems are not a sign of normal aging. If an individual is having trouble following recipes, doesn't know how to complete a task they've done for years, or forgets the names of cousins or grandchildren, Barclay said those could be warning signs.

"Those sorts of things are indicative of a problem that's not really normal aging. Now it might not be Alzheimer's disease, but it's certainly something to look for," Barclay said. "Other things: piled up mail, piled up bills; expired food in the refrigerator when you're digging for that leftover turkey sandwich."

Early diagnosis and treatment may help some individuals with Alzheimer's live independently for a longer period of time, Barclay said. Medication may be able to slow the progression of symptoms for some individuals.

When someone has more advanced disease it's not unusual for them to get left out of conversations. Barclay said there are some easy ways to make a loved one with Alzheimer's feel a part of the action. Family members should seek out information from that person's past, since long-term memory is often preserved in people with the disease. "Asking for the old favorite stories, or 'tell me what it was like when you were little,' or 'what did your mom make for Thanksgiving,' — things that are more long-term memory," Barclay said. "Even if someone makes it up whatever they're saying, it doesn't matter. Just that that person is engaged in talking about something that is meaningful."

Singing and praying are two other activities that are often well-preserved in Alzheimer's patients because they tend to be overlearned, Barclay said.

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