Alzheimer’s Treatment: Non-Drug Therapies That Can Help

There are treatments available now that most families coping with Alzheimer’s or other dementia never hear about that can significantly improve their quality of life.

Called non-pharmacologic therapies (NPTs), these treatments do not come in a pill. Instead, NPTs such as personal counseling and occupational therapy-based strategies are proven to improve the quality of life for people with dementia and their families. NPTs support families and teach them the skills they need to protect their own health and cope with the intense demands of caregiving and help people with dementia stay independent and safe for as long as possible. Some of the NPTs currently used are proven programs that are actually more effective than any known drugs for Alzheimer’s disease.

One example of an NPT, developed at NYU, includes individual and family counseling to reduce conflict and improve communication among family members. Those caring for a spouse with dementia who received the NYU Caregiver Intervention were more satisfied with social support and less depressed, less bothered by difficult behaviors, had better physical health and were able to keep their ill spouses at home longer than those receiving usual care.

Another model developed at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, employs occupational therapists to assess the patient with dementia and identify preserved capabilities as well as the caregiver’s needs. Families are then provided with strategies to manage day to day care, such as communication techniques, safe-proofing the home, establishing daily routines and engaging the individual with dementia in meaningful activities. Families who participated have reported feeling more confident and less upset, and found that their ill family member functions better and exhibits fewer challenging behaviors.

Another NPT that is now being used is a stimulator device surgically implanted into the brain of a patient in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The implanted device is seen as a possible means of boosting memory and reversing cognitive decline, and has already been used in thousands of people with Parkinson’s. The surgery involves drilling holes into the skull to implant wires into the fornix on either side of the brain.  The wires are attached to a pacemaker-like device, which stimulates the brain with tiny electrical impulses generated 130 times a second. The patients don’t feel the current.

Lastly, another effective non-drug Alzheimer’s treatment used to jog memory is music. In nursing homes that use music, the personalized playlists are often meaningful songs chosen by loved ones.  According to Alzheimer’s experts, music helps patients become more alert, more cooperative, more attentive, and more engaged. In many cases, even if they can’t recognize loved ones and they’ve stopped speaking, when the patients hear music, they “come alive”.

Geri Hall, a clinical nurse specialist at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, explains how music activates a part of the brain that stays active despite the dementia. “There is something about music that gets through to Alzheimer’s patients right up until the very end of the disease,” she said, adding that “familiar music from the past can help people with dementia feel at home. It calms them, increases socialization, and even decreases the need for mood controlling medications.” Read our blog post about Alzheimer’s and Music.

Alzheimer’s slowly robs its victims of a lifetime of memories and the ability to perform simple daily tasks.  Instead of focusing on drug treatments, many of which have failed in clinical trials, it may be a good idea to try non-drug treatment options. These programs have been proven effective in randomized controlled trials. And, unlike drug therapy, there are no adverse side effects. There is also an economic argument to be made for better caregiver support. Nearly 11 million family and other unpaid caregivers provided an estimated 12.5 billion hours of care to people with dementia. This care is valued at nearly $144 billion. The country can’t afford the consequences of these caregivers becoming too burned out or sick to carry on. See our recent blog post about the rising cost of dementia.

Moving a person with dementia to a nursing home, while sometimes unavoidable, is expensive. The NPTs described have helped to delay nursing home placement for more than a year. Unfortunately, you cannot delay the inevitable forever, but what you can do is plan ahead for you and your loved ones. Do you or a loved one need nursing home care in the near future or are you looking to plan ahead? Call 703-691-1888 to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation at The Fairfax and Fredericksburg Elder Law Firms of Evan H. Farr, P.C.  We can meet with you, access your situation and determine strategies for your long-term care plan.

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