For many families, determining whether their loved on has age-related memory problems or Alzheimer's disease (AD) can be a challenge. And if their family member is diagnosed with AD, they then face a daunting, open-ended question: "Now what?" Most Alzheimer's caregivers wish that they had known early on what to expect in terms of the disease's progression and their loved one's behaviors. Refer to the following guide to help prepare for what comes next.

Stages of Alzheimer's

The progression of Alzheimer's disease is highly individual, so it's impossible to predict your loved one's specific behaviors over time with certainty. However, experts have classified the disease into early, mid, and late stages, and the following timeframes can serve as general guidelines for families:

Early Stage: 2 to 4 Years(Diagnosis Usually Occurs at End of This Stage)

  • Short-term memory loss
  • Loss of problem-solving and judgment
  • Attention span of about 15 minutes
  • Talks around ideas; some word loss

Mid Stage: 2 to 10 Years Following Diagnosis

  • No short-term memory
  • Little long-term memory
  • Attention span of 2 minutes
  • Difficulty understanding others
  • Extensive assistance with activities of daily living
  • Episodes of incontinence

Late Stage: 1 to 3 Years

  • Attention span of a few seconds
  • Total assistance with activities of daily living
  • No awareness of person, place, time, or purpose of objects
  • Incontinence & loss of motor skills

Communication Tips

Experienced caregivers usually wish they had been prepared early on to communicate with their loved ones as their skills declined. Keep in mind that positive communication and warm interactions form the basis of caring caregiving. The following speech, body language, and body movement guidelines can be helpful as you interact with your loved one (not surprisingly, these are the same basics taught to all health-care professionals who interact with Alzheimer's patients, whether at home or in residential-care settings):

How to Talk

  • Slow, calm speech
  • Sincere tonality
  • Simple, short sentences
  • Offer verbal prompts for assistance
  • Avoid asking, "Do you remember...?"
  • Give loved one extra time to answer

Body Language

  • Cheerful face
  • Use gentle touch for reassurance and guidance
  • Use gestures as visual cues to help loved one
  • Use hand-on-hand to demonstrate use of objects or actions

Body Movement

  • Calm, non-threatening movements
  • Approach your loved one from the front to avoid frightening him or her
  • Avoid startling your loved one awake in the morning or from a nap

As with all things, practice makes (almost) perfect, so be patient with yourself as you incorporate these basics into your caregiving approach.

For more information on Alzheimer's disease, visit our Caregiving Health Center and the Alzheimer's disease Health Center.