Caregiving: Diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease

Being a family caregiver for someone with Alzheimer's disease is challenging, to say the least. You have good days and bad days together, and you do what you can to slow any progression of the disease.

Your role can be even more stressful when your family member also has diabetes.

That adds stress, as you worry about how to keep their glucose under control and when you'll need to take on responsibility for their diabetes care as well.

The Diabetes-Alzheimer's Connection

Researchers are discovering a link between Alzheimer's disease and diabetes, and the combination may be increasing in frequency. Although scientists aren't quite sure of the exact relationship, it seems diabetes is a major risk factor in the development of Alzheimer's, a type of dementia that causes progressive decline in cognitive abilities, including memory and decision-making.

The Mayo Clinic reports that people with diabetes have similar brain changes to those with Alzheimer's and vascular dementia. Both diseases progressively worsen. It's possible damage from one disease may worsen the damage from another. Thus, it's all the more important as a caregiver to manage both conditions well.

How to Manage Diabetes and Alzheimer's Together

As a family caregiver, you want to keep your loved one as independent as possible for as long as possible.

Research in BioMed Central Medicine has found that engaging the person in activities that promote independence and decision-making helps with self-management while it's still possible, so try to engage them in their diabetes care as much as you can. You may already have a medication system in place with clearly labeled instructions or containers; include their diabetes medications in that system if possible.

The research also found that fewer than half of families caring for an older individual with diabetes received educational information about the disease. Being informed is an important part of disease management, so seek out information about diabetes from your family member's primary care doctor, diabetes specialist or diabetes educator. Consider attending a diabetes class offered at a local healthcare facility.

Glucose Monitoring in Alzheimer's

Regular glucose monitoring is challenging with Alzheimer's. In the early stages, your family member may be able to use alarms and reminders to help them remember to check their levels. As the disease progresses, they may lose the dexterity to perform a fingerstick or the ability to remember what to do and why.

To prevent glucose management from falling to the wayside, it's important to use a solution that monitors glucose with minimal action needed from you or your loved one.

Continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) may help you both manage diabetes and keep glucose levels in check.

CGMs automatically track glucose levels throughout the day and night. You can see your glucose level anytime, track how your glucose changes over a few hours or days and identify any trends or patterns. By having this real time information, you can make more informed decisions throughout the day.

Nutrition and Diabetes

Managing diabetes through an eating plan and lifestyle is key to helping prevent further unnecessary damage from both diseases. Mealtimes require adjustment as memory and cognition fade. Your family member may not recognize common foods, and they may forget to eat, eat too often or eat too much of the same foods, complicating efforts to manage their diabetes.

Healthy eating plans are similar for both diseases, and you can ease mealtimes with a little preparation. Talk to their doctor for approval, and then follow these tips:

  • Promote a diet of fruits, vegetables, lean meat, low-fat dairy and whole grains.
  • Keep a variety of healthy foods and snacks available.
  • Limit foods high in saturated fats, cholesterol and refined sugar.
  • Clearly label snacks and meals you've prepared for them.
  • Try to incorporate your person's food preferences.
  • Involve your loved one in their food preparation if possible.
  • Keep water readily available.
  • Cook as often as possible to avoid fast food, frozen dinners or eating out too much.
  • Exercise regularly. Even short walks around the neighborhood are beneficial to physical and mental health.

Continuous glucose monitoring may also help when it comes to understanding how your loved one eats. Checking the person's sugar levels regularly can show you trends throughout the day that can signal whether your family member is forgetting to eat or eating too much at certain times of the day.

A drop in glucose levels can alert you that they haven't been eating that day, or a sharp increase can signal they've eaten more than usual. Staying on top of glucose monitoring lets you know when it's time for you to take a more active role in your loved one's eating routines.

Managing both diseases can be stressful, but it's more than possible.

Work with your doctor and your diabetes team to find routines that work for you and your loved one. Reach out to other professionals and caregivers in your area when needed. As things change, it's normal to need advice or guidance on how to adapt to your family member's needs.