What Should You Know As You Care For Your Relative With Parkinson's?

Megan Ray  |  March 23, 2016
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Every year, Parkinson's Awareness Month takes place in April to support of all of the patients with the disease and their caregivers. More than one million people may be living with Parkinson's in the U.S., according to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. The majority of those diagnosed with the progressive movement disorder are over the age of 50. If you're caring for an elderly loved one with Parkinson's, you should know the facts about the disease and the resources at your disposal.

Parkinson's results in the deterioration of motor function caused by a decrease in healthy dopamine levels in the brain. What exactly triggers the disease is still unknown. However, while a cure has yet to be found, there are plenty of treatment options available to alleviate many of the side effects.

If you've recently begun supporting someone with Parkinson's, you'll want to know what to expect as you care for your relative. While the side effects of the disease vary from person to person, most people will have the same main symptoms.

Most common side effects of Parkinson's
During the first stages of Parkinson's, about 70 percent of people will experience slight tremors in their hands or feet, explained the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. The tremor, which is generally a slight shaking, usually starts in the finger when the muscle is relaxed. While movement can worsen the tremor for some individuals, it can alleviate the shaking in others. Bradykinesia, or slow movement, can also affect Parkinson's patients, making it difficult to make spontaneous movements. If you notice that your loved one is showing signs of muscle stiffness or rigidity, bradykinesia may be the cause. Over time, the symptom may start to limit people's ability to make facial expressions and speak with ease. 

As Parkinson's progresses, individuals often lose control of their reflexes, resulting in a symptom called retropulsion. This is when people sway backwards when standing up from a seated position or when turning. The Parkinson's Disease Foundation recommended having your family member's doctor perform the "pull test" if you think this symptom is starting to become a problem. During the examination a neurologist gives the patient a moderately forceful push and observes the results. Healthy individuals would take a quick step backwards to catch themselves, but patients experiencing retropulsion may not be able to recover without support. Certain medications or therapies may then be suggested.

Providing extra assistance as your relative learns to cope with motor symptoms can reduce their likelihood of falls.Providing extra assistance as your relative learns to cope with motor symptoms can reduce the likelihood of falls.

Freezing is another serious symptom of Parkinson's that requires extra attention and care. This is when people's muscles suddenly become inert during movement. For example, while walking, they may not be able to take another step, feeling as though their feet are glued to the floor. 

Unlike the slowness in movement that many people with Parkinson's experience, it's also common to notice uncontrollable accelerations, including fast speech that may sound like stuttering or accelerations in gait. Nonmotor symptoms can involve sleep disturbances, a loss of the ability to smell, mood disorders, constipation, vision problems, sudden weight loss or gain and depression. The National Parkinson's Foundation noted that these nonmotor symptoms aren't always as apparent to caregivers as signs of motor deterioration, but many patients have reported that these nonmotor side effects have more of an impact on them, so it's important to seek professional help.

"Talk with experienced caregivers for advice."

How to help your loved ones cope with the condition
It's often recommended that people who were recently diagnosed with Parkinson's and their supporters talk with experienced caregivers for advice. They most likely have gone through situations that you're going to face down the road. This may also be an ideal way to reassure your loved one that the condition is manageable and that there are ways to alleviate the symptoms that may occur. 

You may want to create a safe home by making a few changes that decrease the risk of falls. Everything from updated lighting to railings and grab bars will make it easier for your relative to move about. As movement becomes more difficult in the later stages of the condition, kindly offer assistance with daily tasks like dressing. If your family member is resistant to extra help at first, even just letting him know you're there to help if needed can be very comforting and make all the difference.

As a caregiver, staying updated on treatments and the latest research is fundamental to fully supporting your family member. There are resources that provide advice for almost every common situation you may face while caring for your relative, such as the NPF's guides to various Parkinson's medications and what you and your family should know. You can also contact the NPF helpline by emailing helpline@parkinson.org or calling 1-800-4PD-INFO if you have any questions or want to see if there are any support groups in your area.