In a recent presentation in Albuquerque, health psychologist and neurologist Dr. Carol Mazurowski talked about the challenges for families and caregivers in supporting Parkinson’s patients. Over one million Americans have Parkinson’s, more than those with MS and ALS combined. Complicating the challenges faced by individuals with Parkinson’s is the reality that 30% also have accompanying dementia.

There are ten types of Parkinson’s. Most people are more aware of the Tremor Predominant type, thanks to the openness and fundraising by actor Michael J. Fox. Another version is Brady Kinetic Parkinson’s, usually accompanied by dementia. This is the type which affected the boxing great, Muhammad Ali. All types of Parkinson’s result from lack of dopamine in the brain. Usually 80% is lost before the diagnosis is made.

One of the first signs of Parkinson’s is a rapid decline in memory. Procedural memory issues (trouble with learning new skills) is common, and less frequent than with Alzheimer’s. One of the most common hallmarks of Parkinson’s, however is trouble getting the body to start moving – initiating though and action. This is why proper diagnosis of any memory loss or early stage dementia is so important. The treatment and medications for Alzheimer’s vs. Parkinson’s are quite different.

Many Parkinson’s patients are in some ways prisoners in their own bodies. They can understand that they need to move, but their brains are slow to send the signal to their muscles and nerves. This problem appears to be apathy or lack of interest, but it’s really a problem with a lack of initiation. Patience is required when working with these clients. It’s truly as frustrating for them as it is for the caregivers.

Support in overcoming depression also can make a difference. This can be anything from positive self-talk to keeping a sense of humor about the situation.

One thing for families and caregivers to be aware of is that 30% of patients may experience hallucinations, which are caused by the medications, not the illness. Staying aware of this and asking doctors to reduce dosages or change medication, if necessary, can help.

For more information visit the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation website.