Caring for an older adult who has Alzheimer’s disease requires a team approach that includes doctors, social workers, care coordinators and other specialists. It takes a dedicated care team to ensure the health and longevity of seniors with Alzheimer’s and to help relieve stress for caregivers.
If your senior loved one has recently been diagnosed with this disease, the first step is to decide on a course of treatment. While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are steps you can take that may help to delay the progression of your family member’s disease. During this time, you will likely work with a number of different medical professionals to coordinate your loved one’s care. It is important to understand the role and function of each of these different specialists.
Begin by developing a strong relationship with your senior’s primary care physician. They will act as the care team’s “quarterback”, ultimately responsible for managing medications, therapies, and monitoring for any conflicting treatments. While the primary doctor may head the care team, he or she will assemble other experts to help.
Another key member of your loved one’s Alzheimer’s care team will be the neurologist. These specialists are trained in diagnosing, treating and managing disorders of the brain, nervous system, and spinal cord. Many neurologists also have additional training in one area of neurology such as stroke, epilepsy, or dementias.
Finding a Neurologist Specializing in Dementia
Your family doctor or primary care physician may be able to refer you to a high-quality dementia neurologist he or she has worked with in the past. You can also locate a dementia specialist with the help of your local Alzheimer’s Association or through The American Academy of Neurology’s online database (AAN). Before making an appointment, make sure the neurologist is covered by your loved one’s health insurance.
In addition to finding a physician who is considered to be an expert in dementia, it is also important that the physician you work with is someone you and your loved one feel comfortable around. This means feeling respected by the doctor and feeling free to ask questions. You may want to consider interviewing the neurologist to see if he or she is a good fit for your family. If the neurologist does not feel like the right “match”, keeping looking until you find one who does.
Preparing for a Neurologist Appointment
Your loved one will get the best care possible if you prepare for your appointment ahead of time. The AAN recommends Alzheimer’s caregivers do the following before visiting a neurologist:
- Write down the questions you would like to ask. List the most important questions first. It might be helpful to get a small notebook or download an app for your phone to house all of your loved one’s pertinent care information in one place.
- Make a list of all medications — including prescription, over-the-counter, and supplements — that your loved one is taking. Jot down dosages.
- Bring your loved one’s medical history and other medical paperwork including test results, lab work, x-rays, and MRIs.
- Bring a list of the doctors you want your neurologist to update.
- Ask the neurologist if there are any forms you can complete prior to the visit.
What to Expect When Visiting the Neurologist
It can take a week or several months to secure an appointment with an expert dementia neurologist. When it comes time for your senior loved to visit the neurologist, what can you expect? Office visits average around 30 to 45 minutes. Ensure your loved one has had plenty of rest prior to the appointment.
There are several different dementia evaluations the neurologist may conduct. They often include:
- Mental Status Exam which tests recall of current events and ability to perform routine activities
- Cranial nerve evaluation which can include an eye test and evaluation of hearing and sense of smell
- Motor system exam to measure muscle tone and strength
- Sensory system exam that tests sensations such as temperature, pain, and pressure
- Deep tendon exam which tests how active reflexes are and how tendons move
- Gait and coordination evaluation which measure balance and how your loved one walks
The neurologist may order other diagnostic scans such as a CAT scan (computed axial tomography) or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) along with additional urine and blood tests.
After the Neurologist Visit
Review the information you receive from the neurologist’s office. If you can’t remember or don’t understand something you were told, contact the neurologist to get a clear understanding of the information you need.
Finally, depending on the stage of the disease, you may need to begin to plan for the changes that are occurring with your older loved one. Exploring local senior care options such as in-home care or Memory Care in an assisted living community may help you create a plan of care that will support their unique needs now and in to the future.