"Some experts would put psychotherapy on the same par as medication treatment. Others would say there's evidence it's even more effective in early stages." That from a report on everydayhealth.com posted by Dr. Christopher Callahan, an aging research expert at the Indiana University School of Medicine and director of the Indiana University Center for Aging Research.
A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is devastating to the individual, and a mental health professional can help him or her in coping with and accepting the diagnosis. But it also can help deal with behavioral and psychological symptoms.
Though Alzheimer’s disease is widely known for causing loss of memory and intellectual ability, a number of behavioral and psychological symptoms can arise, and this places a greater emphasis on psychological therapy as a central role in the individual’s treatment early on in the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease affects each person uniquely, so, in addition to the chronic and progressive nature of cognitive decline, there are psychological issues that fluctuate, depending on the person's mental and emotional state.
Undergoing some form of psychotherapy following the diagnosis can help the individual through the varied emotions, such as denial, anxiety, agitation or depression, and also assist in managing delusions that accompany the disease. It is often helpful just to talk and express feelings with a professional as a person with the disease comes to terms and accept the diagnosis.
Depression occurs in up to 40% of Alzheimer's patients, making it one of the most common psychological problems to accompany the disease.
“Depression often leads to apathy and less interest in doing things like physical exercise and stimulating activities that are believed to improve the condition of Alzheimer’s patients,” said Dr. Allan Levey, chair of neurology at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Emory Center for Neurodegenerative Disease and Alzheimer’s Center.
Though antidepressant medication is often prescribed for the affected individual, therapy can also play a part. As the disease progresses, however, psychotherapy is less useful because of the decline in cognition and the individual’s inability to express feelings.
Mental health professionals include psychotherapists, social workers and geriatric psychiatrists. Psychotherapists offer “emotion-oriented psychotherapy,” focusing on thoughts and memories, and can help newly diagnosed individuals deal with feelings of anxiety and anger. Social workers guide affected individuals, along with their caregivers, with specific tips and strategies to manage the progression of the disease at home and in the community. And, geriatric psychiatrists specialize in the mental health of older adults and are trained to help those with declining cognitive ability.
Caregivers can benefit from psychotherapy as well. The psychiatrist can help the caregiver with his or her stress and burnout and can assist in developing a plan of care, which includes and honors the affected individual’s wishes.
Especially in the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease, positive outcomes can come from mental health counseling. A family physician can render a referral to an appropriate mental health professional.