How telemedicine aids caregivers of Alzheimer's patients
If your family has a history of Alzheimer's disease, you can consult with a doctor via telemedicine to relay your concern and assess what your next steps may be toward a diagnosis. (Photo: Pexels)

ALZHEIMER'S disease is the most common type of dementia. It is a progressive disease which means that it continues to worsen over time and there is no cure for it.

In 2015, an estimation by the Mona Ageing and Wellness Centre in Jamaica estimated that approximately 41,000 people with dementia live on the island. Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has noted that the Latin America and Caribbean region has one of the fastest ageing populations in the world. These numbers may be expected to rise and thus resources for Alzheimer's care should become a high priority for the Jamaican population.

The beginning symptoms of Alzheimer's disease start with mild memory loss as well as the possibility of difficulties communicating and responding to environmental stimuli. Alzheimer's disease affects the parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language and it may make it difficult for those diagnosed to carry out their regular daily tasks. Often, this means that they will have a caregiver around to support them as the disease progresses.

Who is a caregiver?

In its simplest definition, a caregiver is a family member, loved one or paid helper who regularly looks after a person who requires additional support and monitoring. Alzheimer's patients are among those who tend to have caregivers as they lose mobility but also deal with the limitations of the cognitive deterioration from this disease.

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease. However, there are various parts of a person's treatment that may make a vast difference in their quality of life. Having good, positive support from an attentive caregiver is crucial for Alzheimer's patients.

However, being a caregiver can be a thankless job. You may have to sacrifice important parts of your life to be able to attend to your loved one daily. You may also not get any affirmation or appreciation as they lose much of their mental ability including how to communicate. It is a necessity for any caregiver to be able to strike a balance between their life and the life of the person they are taking care of.

This job may feel all-consuming but you must remember to carve out time for yourself to rest, partake in your hobbies, exercise, eat healthily and to decompress after more challenging days of caregiving. There are plenty of resources available to caregivers to aid them in smoothly supporting patients with Alzheimer's disease. Telemedicine is one of these resources.

Tips for caregivers of Alzheimer's patients?

Being a caregiver for an Alzheimer's patient is a very difficult job, particularly if you're caring for a family member or loved one. The following are some tips that may make your role as caregiver just a bit easier.

•Educate yourself — learn about the condition so it can help you adjust to changing behaviour and care for them accordingly.

•Create a routine — routines are especially important to help reinforce stability as well as supporting memory.

•Promote a healthy lifestyle — this includes having a balanced diet and remaining physically and mentally active. This applies to both the patient and the caregiver.

•Promote good hygiene and grooming — this includes bathing, brushing teeth and combing hair.

•Ensure the home is safe — put in preventative measures to ensure that falls and other kinds of accidents are limited. This includes handrails, locks, as well as removing pieces of furniture that may get in the way.

•Be patient — many changes may happen that feel confusing and oftentimes frustrating. The more you educate yourself the more you will be able to understand these changes and feel less shaken up about them.

•Engage in self-care — make sure you make taking care of yourself outside of the patient a top priority. The healthier you are the better you'll be at providing quality care.

How can telemedicine aid caregivers of Alzheimer's patients?

MDLink is Jamaica's premier telemedicine platform. The goal of telemedicine is to allow persons to have contact with health-care professionals virtually via audio, video call and text. This gives patients (or caregivers) complete access to quality healthcare wherever they are. This convenience is particularly important for patients with Alzheimer's disease who may need additional support to be taken out of the house and into a doctor's office. The following are some of the key benefits that caregivers of Alzheimer's patients can gain through taking advantage of the convenience of telemedicine platforms.

Guidance through early diagnosis — Early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease may not be an immediate emergency for the patient or their loved ones. Some of these symptoms include memory loss that disrupts daily life, difficulty completing familiar tasks, misplacing things and eventually changes in mood, personality and behaviour. If you do notice these symptoms and your family has a history of Alzheimer's disease, you can consult with a doctor via telemedicine to relay your concern and assess what your next steps may be toward a diagnosis.

Guidance can also include doctors preparing the family as well as the patient on what to expect as the disease continues to progress. This allows the family to be prepared and the patient to have the right support and treatment in place as they get more ill.

Increased access to treatment — One of the main benefits of telemedicine is that you can access it from anywhere as long as you have an internet connection. This means that patients who live in rural areas, patients with mobility issues and even patients who may be uncomfortable outside of their homes, can get convenient and quality treatment wherever they are. Additionally, some may live in areas that do not have access to Alzheimer's care specialists. Telemedicine can thus fill the gaps and grant patients access to specialist care when they need it most.

Easily filled prescriptions and check-ups — As a caregiver, you may be the one in charge of ensuring all the medication is up to date and available. It may be one additional task on your long to-do list. However, telemedicine platforms make prescription filling extremely easy and convenient. You can get prescription refills sent right to your pharmacy without the inconvenience of visiting your doctor in person. Additionally, you can have prescriptions filled and medications delivered to you without disruption of your usual routine. Furthermore, if the person you are caring for needs to have follow-ups with their doctor for non-emergent care, this can also be facilitated via telemedicine.

Access to therapy for the caregiver without having to leave their loved one — The burden of caregiving may put you at an increased risk for health problems and leave you more prone to depression, high levels of stress, loneliness, anxiety, exhaustion and even burnout. It may be difficult to process as you experience your loved one deteriorate, losing their memories and capabilities. Some behavioural changes may also sometimes be extremely upsetting to others without the patient fully understanding their impact. Seeking help is not a luxury for you as a caregiver, it's a necessity. You cannot take care of someone else without taking care of yourself.

While experiences may vary from caregiver to caregiver, getting support as you grant others support is always a good idea. You can meet with a therapist or psychiatrist online via telemedicine platforms such as MDLink. You can talk about your struggles being a caregiver and what kind of support you may need to benefit your life. If you are struggling with anxiety, depression or insomnia, these may be treated with medication that can be prescribed to you through this virtual platform. Additionally, if you want access to resources such as support groups for caregivers, you can be guided appropriately by your provider online.

Alzheimer's disease is all-consuming for those diagnosed, but it is also all-consuming for those who have to witness this deterioration first-hand. As the world moves towards further technological advancements, telemedicine is just one key way that you can gain support, not just for the diagnosed but for those who are supporting them through their illness.

Dr Ché Bowen, a digital health entrepreneur and family physician, is the CEO & founder of MDLink, a digital health company that provides telemedicine options. Check out the company's website at www.theMDLink.com. You can also contact him at drchebowen@themdlink.com.

Dr Ché Bowen

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