Parkinson’s Disease in the Elderly: How Caregivers Can Help

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Parkinson’s disease in the elderly is one of the most difficult conditions for patients and caregivers to cope with. A progressive neurological condition, it can affect both movement and cognition. This is part of what makes caring for someone with Parkinson’s so difficult, especially in the latter stages of the disease. However, with the right amount of education (and with reasonable expectations), you and your loved one can learn how to handle this transition.

What are the symptoms of Parkinson’s?

Not all sufferers of Parkinson’s will develop the same symptoms, and the symptoms they do get will likely change over time. Symptoms often start on one side of the body and eventually affect both sides. The most common symptoms of Parkinson’s are:

  • Tremors. These usually start in the hands, but can also affect the chin, arms, legs, and feet.
  • Rigidity. Muscle stiffness can make movement difficult for the Parkinson’s patient, in addition to causing muscle aches.
  • Trouble with walking and balance. At first, walking at normal speeds may prove difficult for your loved one, or they may drag one foot behind them as they walk. Using small steps, having a shuffling gait, or frequently falling are also common.
  • Bradykinesia1 (slow movement) and akinesia2 (loss of movement). These symptoms usually start out as the inability to perform motor tasks at a normal pace. Over time, your loved one may be unable to make facial expressions, leaving them with a “mask-like” appearance.

Keep in mind that no definitive test exists for Parkinson’s disease. A diagnosis is usually made based on a neurological exam that evaluates symptoms. Your loved one’s doctor may also order a brain scan to rule out other conditions with symptoms that mimic Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s: what are the treatment options?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for Parkinson’s at this time. However, there are options that can help manage it.

Medications

Once minor symptoms begin to progress, certain medications may be beneficial. Your loved one’s physician may suggest different medications – or combinations of them – as time goes on. However, the drugs tend to be less effective in the advanced stages of the disease.

Deep Brain Stimulation

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a treatment that involved the implant of a pacemaker-like device. It is believed that this device delivers electrical pulses to parts of the brain that control movement.

Other treatments

Some treatments for Parkinson’s don’t involve medical intervention at all. Instead, they focus on activities like walking, swimming, dance, yoga and Tai Chi. Even though these activities haven’t been proven to delay symptom progression, they may be helpful in symptom management.

How caregivers can cope

Prepare yourself

In the early stages of Parkinson’s, caregivers typically need to provide emotional support more than hands-on assistance. This is the perfect time to research and learn more about your loved one’s condition.

Assess your needs

If possible, determine in advance how much you can comfortably do for your loved one – both now and in the future. Don’t be tempted to neglect your own needs in the long run in order to provide care.

Don’t go it alone

Don’t be afraid to seek help from a support group specifically for caregivers of people with Parkinson’s. You can also contact a home health agency to pick up tasks and chores you find onerous.

Parkinson’s disease in the elderly may become more common

Parkinson’s is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s. And unfortunately, cases of Parkinson’s disease in the elderly are expected to become more common as baby boomers age. This is because incidents of the disease are highest in those sixty and over. However, it is possible for patients to start having symptoms even younger than forty. As soon as you’re aware that someone you love has been diagnosed, take the appropriate steps to cope – both for them and for yourself.

If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. “Bradykinesia,” http://www.toolkit.parkinson.org/content/bradykinesia
  2. The Cerebellum and Parkinsonian Akinesia/Rigidity,” http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/781642_5
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