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Understanding & Managing Parkinson’s Disease

By Eric Carter

When a loved one is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease (PD), it can be a terrifying experience for the whole family. It's truly an emotional rollercoaster. Families can feel shock and fear upon the diagnosis. They might experience guilt for not recognizing the situation sooner; many experience some relief as they begin to understand the disease and identify their loved one’s behaviors as symptoms.

While there is no cure for PD, Parkinson's treatments are more advanced than ever before and PD is becoming more manageable. There are more tools and professional support available today than ever. To best help a loved one with Parkinson’s, you must first understand the disease, symptoms, and treatment options.

Overview of Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is often classified under the umbrella of dementia, along with other age-related disorders that affect the brain. However, the disease has a specific set of symptoms and classifications.

According to the Parkinson's Foundation,"Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects predominately dopamine-producing ("dopaminergic") neurons in a specific area of the brain called substantia nigra."

In other words, PD is a brain disease that affects a specific portion of the brain: the part that controls dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that carries information between neurons. Changes in dopamine affect learning, emotion, memory, physical movement, and even addiction.

Causes

The cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, but there are many factors that contribute to the ultimate diagnosis. The disease primarily affects individuals over 60 years old, making age a primary factor for the disease. The disease affects more men than women, although doctors aren’t sure why. However, your genetics also play a part. Research suggests that certain people may be genetically predisposed to early onset PD. This suggests that PD might run in families.

Another factor of developing PD is lifestyle. Individuals who have been exposed to certain chemicals for long periods of time may be at a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s. Serious head injuries can also put individuals at a higher risk of developing the disease later in life.

Signs & Symptoms

Parkinson's manifests itself in several ways. Below are some of the signs and symptoms associated with PD.

  • Shaking
  • Difficulty walking
  • Stiffness
  • Balance/coordination issues
  • Falls
  • Mood swings
  • Sleeping pattern changes
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Memory issues
  • Low energy levels
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Urinary tract problems
  • Blood pressure changes

The symptoms tend to be mild in the beginning stages of the disease and grow more severe over time. These initial mild symptoms may be barely noticeable or just attributed to natural aging. This is why it can be such a shock to families when a loved one is diagnosed.

By paying attention to your loved one’s behavior and noting any changes, you can help your loved one’s care team catch Parkinson’s, or other health conditions, during the earlier stages.

Treatment Options for Parkinson’s Disease

Every person experiences PD differently and requires different treatments to manage their unique symptoms. During the earliest stages, it's common for doctors to prescribe PD medications, which may include:

  • Levodopa
  • Carbidopa
  • Dopamine agonists
  • Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) inhibitors
  • Anticholinergics

In addition to medications, regular exercise has been proven to improve the quality of life for people suffering from PD and might slow the progression of the disease somewhat.

Surgery is also an option for some suffering from PD. Ablative surgery can be used to destroy neural tissue that is driving PD symptoms. Pallidotomy and thalamotomy are non-reversible surgeries that use targeted application of heat to parts of the brain.

Another option is Deep brain stimulation (DBS), which involves implanting a device that delivers electrical pulses to the brain. These pulses can help reduce tremors and difficulty walking, giving some seniors their freedom back.

How Families Can Cope with Parkinson’s Disease

If you or your loved one has been diagnosed with PD, your family life is going to change. In the beginning, lifestyle changes may only include attending doctor appointments and sorting out medications. As the disease progresses, treatments and care will need to progress too. While medications will help a great deal, eventually you or your loved one will need assistance. The level of care they need will increase the disease affects memory and motor functions.

Here are some suggestions on how to prepare for the changes that Parkinson’s disease can bring to your family.

Cleaning Assistance

Consider hiring a cleaning team to come into your home a few times a month. Chores like sweeping and vacuuming are especially difficult for seniors who are experiencing balancing issues or the telltale "shuffle step" associated with PD. Reducing clutter around the home can help prevent potentially dangerous falls.

Home Renovations

In addition to reducing clutter, you may want to consider making adjustments to your home as well. These renovations may include:

  • Add shower seats in the bathtub
  • Raise toilet seats
  • Add handicap railings in the bathrooms
  • Install night lights around the house
  • Remove rugs

Care Plan

Make a plan to care for your loved one. We recommend involving the whole family. It's helpful to designate specific duties for each family member. How you do this is entirely up to you, but here are some ideas to help spread the responsibility around:

  • Teenage grandchildren can visit every day after school for a wellness check and to take trash out or bring trash cans back in
  • Divvy up grocery shopping
  • Coordinate schedules to accommodate doctor’s appointments
  • Create a list of your loved one’s medication along with dosage and instructions

While you may be able to delegate some responsibilities among your family members, not all families live near their affected loved one. Or perhaps their schedules don’t allow them to provide the level of care their loved one needs. If this is the case for your family, consider hiring a professional caregiver to help with meal preparation, bathing, companionship, and other daily tasks. 

At Caring Senior Service, our caregivers are trained to help seniors with any type of dementia, including Parkinson’s. Learn more about the care we can provide for you or a loved one by referring to our Alzheimer’s and Dementia Specialty Program.

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Tags: Senior Health, Caregivers, parkinson's

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