Alzheimer’s Disease and Impairment of the Senses

I recently received a Twitter question from a woman who asked me if AD can affect the sense of taste.  The answer is “Yes.” AD can affect all of the senses and will affect different people in different ways. You can be a more effective caregiver if you understand how an AD person’s perceptions can be changed by this awful disease. Read on.

~ Jennifer


Alzheimer’s disease can cause changes in a person’s ability to interpret what he or she can see, hear, taste, feel, or smell. The person with Alzheimer’s should be evaluated periodically by a physician for any such changes that may be correctable with glasses, dentures, hearing aids, or other devices.

Vision

People with Alzheimer’s may experience a number of changes in visual abilities. For example, they may lose their ability to comprehend visual images. Although there is nothing physically wrong with their eyes, people with Alzheimer’s may no longer be able to interpret accurately what they see because of brain changes. Also, their sense of perception and depth may be altered. These changes can cause safety concerns.

  • Create color contrast between floors and walls to help the person see depth. Floor coverings are less visually confusing if they are a solid color.
  • Use dishes and placemats in contrasting colors for easier identification.
  • Mark the edges of steps with brightly colored strips of tape to outline changes in height.
  • Place brightly colored signs or simple pictures on important rooms (the bathroom, for example) for easier identification.
  • Be aware that a small pet that blends in with the floor or lies in walkways may be a hazard. The person with Alzheimer’s disease may trip over the pet.

Smell

A loss of or decrease in smell often accompanies Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Install smoke detectors and check them frequently. The person with Alzheimer’s disease may not smell smoke or may not associate it with danger.
  • Keep refrigerators clear of spoiled foods.
  • Touch
  • People with Alzheimer’s may experience loss of sensation or may no longer be able to interpret feelings of heat, cold, or discomfort.
  • Adjust water heaters to 120 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid scalding tap water. Most hot water heaters are set at 150 degrees, which can cause burns.
  • Color code separate water faucet handles, with red for hot and blue for cold.
  • Place a sign on the oven, coffee maker, toaster, crock-pot, iron, and other potentially hot appliances that says DO NOT TOUCH or STOP! VERY HOT. The person with Alzheimer’s should not use appliances without supervision. Unplug appliances when not in use.
  • Use a thermometer to tell you if bath water is too hot or too cold.
  • Remove furniture or other objects with sharp corners or pad the corners to reduce potential for injury.

Taste

People with Alzheimer’s may lose taste sensitivity. As their judgment declines, they also may place dangerous or inappropriate things in their mouths.

  • Keep all condiments such as salt, sugar, or spices hidden if you see the person with Alzheimer’s using excess amounts. Too much salt, sugar, or spice can be irritating to the stomach or cause other health problems.
  • Remove or lock up medicine cabinet items such as toothpaste, perfume, lotions, shampoos, rubbing alcohol, and soap, which may look and smell like food to the person with Alzheimer’s.
  • Consider a childproof latch on the refrigerator, if necessary.
  • Keep the toll-free poison control number (1-800-222-1222) by the telephone. Keep a bottle of ipecac (vomit-inducing agent) available, but use only with instructions from poison control or 911.
  • Keep pet litter boxes inaccessible to the person with Alzheimer’s disease. Do not store pet food in the refrigerator.
  • Learn the Heimlich maneuver or other techniques to use in case of choking. Check with your local Red Cross chapter for more information and instruction.
  • If possible, keep a spare set of dentures. If the person keeps removing dentures, check for correct fit.

Hearing

People with Alzheimer’s disease may have normal hearing, but they may lose their ability to interpret what they hear accurately. This loss may result in confusion or overstimulation.

  • Avoid excessive noise in the home such as having the stereo and the TV on at the same time.
  • Be sensitive to the amount of noise outside the home, and close windows or doors, if necessary.
  • Avoid large gatherings of people in the home if the person with Alzheimer’s shows signs of agitation or distress in crowds.
  • If the person wears a hearing aid, check the batteries and functioning frequently.
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