Treatment options for Alzheimer’s patients

This post was written by Julia Dickman, PharmD, Parkview Health.

Defining Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. When people think of Alzheimer’s, they typically think of memory loss. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, which means symptoms might not be evident in the early stages and can gradually get worse over time. Early symptoms include difficulty recalling names, events and conversations, as well as, anxiety and depression. More advanced symptoms include difficulty communicating, confusion, poor judgement and behavior changes. These behavioral changes can include agitation, irritability, trouble sleeping and hallucinations. In very late stages of Alzheimer’s, symptoms include difficulty walking, speaking and swallowing.

Medications

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are medications that can help slow the progression of the condition. There are two types of drugs that can be used, alone or together, to help with memory loss and confusion.

The first type of medication includes:

  • donepezil (Aricept®)
  • rivastigmine (Exelon®)
  • galantamine (Razadyne®)

Memantine (Namenda®) is used to support memory.

Your doctor can help you determine which medication(s) is best for you or your loved one.

Side effects

Some side effects might include trouble sleeping or upset stomach and vomiting. Every patient is different. These medications often need to be increased slowly until the highest tolerable dose is reached. When stopping the medication, you might need to slowly decrease. Please talk to your doctor before abruptly stopping any medications.

Treatment for behavioral symptoms

Non drug options are the best treatment for behaviors in dementia. It’s important to provide a calm, relaxing environment with good lighting, without harsh sounds.

As Alzheimer’s progresses, the senses can become dulled, and this can cause or worsen behaviors. One of the best interventions for behavioral symptoms is to provide sensory stimulation. This can be done through tactile (touch) stimulation, aroma therapy, auditory stimulation, visual stimulation and multisensory stimulation. The best methods connect the patient with something from their past. Below are some examples that can be used in each category.

Tactile stimulation

  • Folding clothes
  • Taking care of a baby doll
  • Sorting nuts and bolts or putting them together
  • Massage (even just a simple hand massage)

Aromatherapy

  • Rosemary and lemon in the morning
  • Lavender and orange in the evening

Auditory stimulation

  • Music therapy
    • Pick songs that hold meaning, such as the song that played during their first dance at their wedding, or songs that they enjoyed when they were a teenager or young adult. If you or your loved one has an early stage of Alzheimer’s, create a playlist now. This can be a fun activity for the whole family!
  • Musical instruments
  • Nature sounds

Visual stimulation

  • Natural lighting
  • Kaleidoscopes
  • Pastel colors
  • Sunsets
  • Art therapy

Multisensory stimulation

  • Fidget blankets
    • These are small, lap-sized blankets that have buttons, zippers, pockets and many textures of fabric for tactile stimulation, bells for auditory stimulation, car fresheners for aroma therapy and are multi-colored for visual stimulation.
  • Finger painting
    • This engages both tactile stimulation and visual stimulation.
  • Sensory rooms
    • These include lights, colors, sounds, smells and varying textures to stimulate many senses.

There are many other therapies you can try. Be creative and find what works best for your loved one. Remember, everyone is unique. One therapy that is right for one person might not be right for another. Don’t get discouraged and keep trying until you find what works best!

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