In the 1970s, cancer was a disease seldom discussed in polite conversation. When mentioned at all, it was often in hushed tones and there were few cancer treatment centers in the United States. Today, numerous qualified oncologists and cancer treatment centers are located in every city across the country; using literally hundreds of medications, protocols and procedure to treat cancer.

Alzheimer's disease today is much like cancer was 40 years ago. It is prevalent, but not freely discussed or well understood. The medical community is still in the discovery phase when it comes to Alzheimer's. There is no cure for Alzheimer's, and though there is some promising work being done with diagnostic imaging and genotyping, the only definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer's is still through autopsy. As a society, we are still learning how to accept and interact with individuals living with Alzheimer's and other memory impairing diseases.

Alzheimer's and other memory impairing diseases cause a condition known as "dementia." Dementia itself is not a disease. Rather, it refers to a set of symptoms that affect a person's ability to function compared to how they once did. Dementia is often associated with language difficulty, memory lapses, disorientation, poor judgment and difficulty completing daily care routines, such as dressing, eating or hygiene tasks. Dementia results from a variety of factors, including inadequate oxygen supply, trauma to the brain through stroke or head injury, and certain diseases (e.g. Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body disease, Pick's disease).

Dementia affects not only the individual with the condition, but those around him who must deal with the individual's changes in behavior and diminishing ability to function. A diagnosis of dementia doesn't automatically mean that someone can no longer manage his own life or that he can no longer be cared for at home. There are powerful tools that the family caregiver can use to help the person with dementia adapt to the "new normal." These tools include communication techniques and modifications to the physical environment that can help to reduce anxiety, fear and frustration.

To help you communicate better with your loved one you should pay attention to your own posture, facial expressions and tone of voice. Make good eye contact and look friendly and relaxed. Speak slowly, clearly and simply. Give instruction one step at a time. Where appropriate, use gestures to match your words. Be patient. Rushing will only frustrate you both.

Things that you can do to make the environment more comfortable and safe for a person with dementia include:

• Monitoring the noise level. Too much noise causes increased confusion, anxiety and overstimulation.

• Providing ample lighting. Minimize glare from windows and limit shadows.

• Lowering the temperature setting on the water heater to avoid burns.

• Replacing glassware with plastic cups.

• Placing a dark-colored, skid-proof rug or mat in front of exterior doors to discourage wandering outside.

Providing family members, friends and the community with a knowledge base that increases understanding and a set of coping tools to handle day-to-day life is essential to improving the quality of life for everyone who is touched by dementia.

To give the community more information and practical tips about living with dementia, Homewatch CareGivers will have two free seminars this month. The first will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 17 at Horizon Presbyterian Church, 1401 E. Liberty Lane. The second will be at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 31 the Chandler Library - Sunset Branch, 4930 W. Ray Road.

Ahwatukee Foothills resident Jane Cox, MHSA, is president and CEO of Homewatch CareGivers of the East Valley. Reach her at (480) 245-6103.


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