Harvard Health Letter

The emotional side of Alzheimer's disease

Instead of trying to bring people back to reality, caregivers are advised to empathize and establish an emotional connection.

Alzheimer's disease is usually depicted as mainly a disease that affects memory and thinking, partly because memory lapses are so noticeable during the beginning of the disease. People in the early stages of the disease start to lose things, forget once-familiar faces, and struggle to recall recent events. Other cognitive problems soon develop, including a shortened attention span, difficulties with language, and an inability to think logically. In the later stages, people may completely lose the ability to speak. Eventually, much of what we consider conscious thought disappears.

But emotional aspects of the disease may be just as important, especially to the friends and family who serve as caregivers. On the negative side, Alzheimer's sufferers may have feelings of anger, anxiety, depression, fear, and loneliness. On the positive side, they may feel serene and joyful, and are especially capable of "living in the moment." Joanne Koenig Coste, an influential Alzheimer's disease activist- turned-consultant, believes that wandering, aggression, and other behavioral changes seen in people with Alzheimer's disease are the direct consequence of feelings that arise because of their cognitive difficulties. In her book Learning to Speak Alzheimer's, she calls it a "disease of the emotions."

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