Rosemary Orange, 53, of Ottawa, Ontario, suspected something was wrong with her 83-year-old mother, Sylvia. "She'd go shopping and forget what she was doing," Orange says. "So she'd come right back home without buying anything."
Several months later, Orange's mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, a type of dementia that affects nearly 36 million people worldwide. That rate is expected to nearly double in the next 20 years, according to the World Health Organization.
What can you do if a parent or relative is diagnosed with this progressive disease, which affects memory and, eventually, the ability to carry out everyday tasks? Gary Small, MD, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, suggests some steps you can take now.
Be informed. "No. 1 is get the right information," Small says. "A lot of misconceptions surround the disease, and many people are terrified when they first hear the diagnosis."
Plan for the future. Make sure your loved one has updated documents about end-of-life care (called advance directives) and legal documents, such as wills and trusts, in place. "It's best to do that early, when the person [with Alzheimer's] can still have some input," Small says.
Make a safe home. If there's a danger your relative will wander from home, block stairways, or put door handles up high where people with Alzheimer's wouldn't think to reach, Small says.
Keep routines. "Keep everyday activities as routine as possible," and place several orienting items, such as clocks and calendars, around the house, Small says.
"Long-term memory is preserved until late in the illness," he explains. "So if the date is prominently displayed and everyday activities are reinforced, it will be much easier for people to remember and become part of long-term memory."
It can't be cured, but can Alzheimer's be slowed? Research is ongoing, but these steps may help.
Get moving.Exercise is good for brain and heart health, so a regular routine is important, says Small. "I often recommend that people with Alzheimer's and their caregivers exercise together -- it can be as simple as taking a walk after dinner."
Manage stress. "Any kind of stress can aggravate symptoms such as aggression and paranoia," Small says. Encourage stress-calming techniques such as meditation or tai chi, he says.
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