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How an Alzheimer’s and dementia social worker can help you

How an Alzheimer’s and dementia social worker can help you

Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia impacts the life of not only the person with the disease, but also the life of their entire family and caregiving team. Social workers can help people with memory impairment and their families navigate all of the different challenges that come with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and provide them with a thorough tool kit on how to live life fully with the disease.

“Social workers who deal with the Alzheimer’s and dementia population need to have a comprehensive understanding of the illness,” says Cynthia Epstein, a licensed clinical social worker who is the clinical mentor for the NYU Langone Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Dementias Family Support Program. “It’s the way we think — having that big-picture view of this illness — that makes us a good resource.”

Because every family is different and because no one case of Alzheimer’s or dementia is the same, there isn’t a specific strategy or system that social workers consistently follow to help people with the disease and their caregivers.

“It depends on who makes the contact with the social worker, on what you understand about the person with dementia, and about how a clinician works,” says Epstein. “There are different approaches to being helpful.”

Here are some of the ways social workers can help you navigate through the many different impacts of the disease:

Navigate practical resources

“Social workers have to know all the [practical] resources,” says Epstein. “For instance, Medicaid is the only payer for long-term care, and a lot of people don’t know how to navigate it. How you access this resource is something a social worker knows how to do. We can clarify some of those issues for them.”

Help with emotional adjustments

It’s not just the logistical issues that social workers can assist with. “We also help with emotional impacts,” says Epstein. “Very often an adult child will say, ‘I can’t tell my mother what do.’ It can feel like they’re becoming the mother or it can even feel like a loss of a mother. It’s hard for them to see that they’re helping the parent by instructing them, not co-opting them — you’re not doing anyone a favor by doing that. A social worker can help them navigate that new dynamic.”

Direct you to helpful services

Beyond providing help by using their own knowledge, social workers can also point families to resources that they might not have realized existed. There are a wide variety of services to help people impacted by Alzheimer’s or dementia, ranging from community agencies to city- or state-wide free services to family support programs sponsored by universities.

“People don’t know about all the resources available to help them,” says Epstein. “Social workers can help a family find these resources, and help through the progression because the challenges change over time [as the disease advances].”

Navigate a new (and good) life with memory impairment

Beyond helping families find these tools, social workers can help generally improve the quality of life for people with the disease, as well as their caregivers and loved ones.

“There’s a life that can be fully lived with dementia if people are educated on how to do it.  Social workers can help provide that,” Epstein says.

Instead of families feeling like they are suffering through the disease, social workers can teach them how to implement new routines to improve the quality of life for everyone, whether that be attending an Alzheimer’s reading group or similar activity, decluttering your home to make it less overwhelming for the person with Alzheimer’s, or teaching caregivers how to deal with behaviors such as tantrums that your loved one might exhibit. Relatively simple strategies like these can help reduce tension for caregivers, which can result in reduced tension for their loved ones, too.

“If we can reduce the stress on the family, we can certainly have a trickle down effect on the person with the disease because they aren’t sensing stress from the caregiver,” Epstein says. “Everybody’s life is better.”

While there are several helpful people caregivers can have on their Alzheimer’s care team, social workers can be a particularly significant resource to consult.

“I think a dementia social worker is uniquely qualified to help families because they know what to look for and what is offered for people in the community,” says Epstein. “This is not to say that others can’t be helpful and aren’t. But I think we are one of the best resources. We are used to looking at the impact of the illness on the person and the family.”

How to find a social worker

For those interested in finding a dementia social worker, Epstein suggests looking online for community agencies, which often provide free social work services. State-funded initiatives, universities and clinical studies can also provide assistance. Private social workers or geriatric care managers are available as well, but can sometimes be more expensive.