The 22nd Annual Alzheimer Coffee Break kicks off on Sept. 21. Starting that Thursday and throughout the rest of the month, small businesses, hospitals, schools and other places will hold "Coffee Breaks" during which participants can make donations to local dementia and Alzheimer's support programs for a cup of joe.
Coffee Breaks raise over $1 million every year for important programs and services that affect the quality of life for people living with dementia, their family and their caregivers. The impacts are widespread - 564,000 Canadians are currently living with dementia, with 1.1 million people affected directly or indirectly by the disease.
Your morning cup can make all the difference. Find a Coffee Break near you or contact your provincial Alzheimer Society to register to host your own.
As you get ready for the Annual Alzheimer Coffee Break, read on to learn more about dementia and Alzheimer's disease, how they affect aging parents and the role of caregivers:
What is dementia?
Dementia is not a disease itself, rather it is a set of symptoms that together express a decrease in memory, mental ability and problem-solving.
Dementia is caused by other diseases and conditions, the most common being Alzheimer's, followed by vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke. Other conditions that can cause dementia include trauma to the head, Parkinson's disease and Lewy Body disease. In a dementia case, brain cells become damaged and die, and the condition worsens over time. But with treatment, some symptoms can be lessened or even reversed.
Some older people may begin forgetting certain things and believe they are developing dementia, however, certain lifestyle factors and other issues may cause dementia-like symptoms, such as thyroid disease, vitamin deficiencies or chronic stress. In addition, having mild changes in memory as someone ages is common - almost 40 per cent of people over age 65 experience some form of memory loss. However, doctors stress dementia is not a part of normal aging, and is separate from these age-related issues. The Alzheimer Society of Canada has a helpful chart for distinguishing normal aging from dementia here.
What is Alzheimer's disease?
Alzheimer's is a progressive and irreversible disease that is signified by "plaques" and "tangles" in the brain, which are proteins that harm brain cells and cause the brain to shrink over time. The disease affects memory, but, as the Alzheimer Society notes, it also impacts all parts of life and everyday functions, including cognitive and physical abilities, moods, and behaviors.
The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease worsen over time as the condition moves through several stages. However, each person may experience different speeds of progression.
"The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease worsen over time."
There is currently no cure, though medications have been developed that can help people living with Alzheimer's manage their symptoms. Doctors advise early screening and diagnosis for the disease, as treatments that begin in the early stages of the disease's progression have a better chance of being helpful.
Alzheimer's disease has modifiable and non-modiafiable risk factors, meaning changeable factors like lifestyle choices and non-changeable factors like genetics, respectively. Researchers estimate that up to half of all cases of Alzheimer's disease worldwide may have been the result of seven key modifiable risk factors: high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, depression, smoking, cognitive inactive or low education, and physical inactivity.
How are dementia and Alzheimer's disease different?
It is important to emphasize dementia and Alzheimer's disease are not the same. Dementia is a set of symptoms, whereas Alzheimer's is a cause. There are also many causes of dementia in addition to Alzheimer's, as well as conditions that can produce dementia-like symptoms. The Alzheimer Society of Canada has a helpful video explaining this distinction here.
Resources and help for the caregiver
Caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer's or dementia are often adult children. They play a vital role in their aging parents' lives, helping them to manage their symptoms and deal with the disease.
Being a caregiver is demanding, emotionally, physically and financially. In fact, economists from CIBC recently estimated caring for aging parents costs Canadians $33 billion a year in out-of-pocket expenses and time taken from work, and this number is only expected to rise.
In addition to these costs, many caregivers experience intense feelings of sadness, grief, anger and stress. They are also often fatigued, and may neglect taking care of their own well-being to take care of the person with dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
The Alzheimer Society of Canada urges caregivers to recognize that stress is a normal part of caregiving and know the warning signs. If they experience stress, they should seek help from a doctor.
In addition, it is important for the caregiver to prioritize self-care. Though they may feel selfish doing so, they can only care well for others if they themselves are first taken care of.
Social support is also a vital part of managing caregiver stress. They should talk with their spouse, friends and family members about what they are dealing with. There are also support groups and other resources that can help caregivers - the Alzheimer Society of Canada has a helpful list here.
Those close to caregivers should also remember this importance of support, and look for ways to help caregivers ease their burdens and soothe their anxieties. Just lending an ear or sharing a cup of coffee can make a big difference.
Facing Alzheimer's disease or dementia in an aging parent is challenging. But with education and caregiver support, you can help them manage their condition.