Caring for people with Alzheimer's and dementia is no easy task, but neurologist Anne Lipton believes there are plenty of ways to make life a little easier for both patients and caregivers.
"Dementia might not be curable, but it is, generally speaking, treatable in some way," she told about 25 residents and clinicians Friday during a lecture at Bel Air's Brightview Senior Living.
Lipton, who lives in Dallas but studied at Johns Hopkins University, was on tour for her book, "The Common Sense Guide to Dementia for Clinicians and Caregivers."
Alzheimer's, just one of many dementias, is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. As the number of Americans older than 65 continues to grow, the Alzheimer's Association expects the number of elderly people with Alzheimer's to nearly triple by 2050, to about 13.8 million patients.
Many residents at the event told deeply personal stories of trying to care for their aging parents. One woman became emotional as she described her mother constantly forgetting that her husband just died.
Other people said their relatives with dementia could be violent or mean. One woman said she felt like she had to look after her mother eight hours a day but also wanted her own space.
Another woman drew a few laughs when she said: "My mother played Scrabble with [her husband] for a long time after he was dead, but she always won. She just turned the board around."
Lipton tried to give them strategies for helping their relatives, urging respect for both the patient and the caregiver. She noted dementia is an umbrella term for a variety of diseases, of which Alzheimer's was just one.
"You want to set your loved one up for success, you don't want to set them up for failure, but you want them to have independence and integrity," Lipton said, explaining that she decided to write the book because many doctors and health care professionals, as well as families, do not know how to deal with patients who had dementia.
Being in new situations, for example, is much harder for them.
"A patient with dementia is going to have a harder time changing and a harder time adapting," she said, encouraging people to see situations from the patient's point of view. "You can understand, if you were in a foreign country and someone was trying to take off your clothes and you didn't understand what they were saying, you would resist that."
New objects pose the same problem.
"I had a lot of families buy those alarm buttons where [patients] weren't able to use them," she said. "Even that one button, they didn't remember what it was for. It was a new thing."
Caregivers should plan ahead more for trips, ask for help and not be afraid to tell people that their relative has dementia.
Lipton also said patients can be offered different activities as long as basics like mealtimes and bedtimes stay the same.
"Just because it's routine, doesn't mean it needs to be boring," she said. "My husband loves to cook and he usually expects a nice dinner, but it's not the same thing every night."
She suggested helping the patient accomplish daily tasks but not trying to "win an argument."
"They may be an accountant who has difficulty figuring out a tip [at a restaurant]," she said of one possible dementia case. In that case, the caregiver could offer to pay half of the bill or pay the tip.
"You can respect the person, you can still let them pay, but you avoid stress and frustration, which are bad for the brain," she said. "If something does go missing… say, 'Let's look together.'"
To Lipton, that means giving patients things that reassure them and taking away those that frustrate or upset them.