While the onset of multiple sclerosis (MS) typically occurs in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, its symptoms often peak in the senior years. Because of this, caring for an older person with MS can be particularly challenging for caregivers. Here’s a closer look at this debilitating disease, along with tips for family members, friends, and other caregivers providing support for people afflicted with MS.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a potentially disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). In MS, the immune system attacks the protective sheath (myelin) that covers nerve fibers and causes communication problems between your brain and the rest of your body. Eventually, the disease can cause the nerves themselves to deteriorate or become permanently damaged.”
More than 400,000 people in the US are currently living with MS, with 10,000 new diagnoses being made every year. The disease is significantly more common in women than in men. And while an MS diagnosis is certainly life-changing, it’s also not a death sentence: The lifespan of someone with MS is equivalent to that of someone without the disease, according to Medical News Today.
Signs and Symptoms of MS
Depending on a number of factors pertaining to everything from the progression of the disease to the location of the affected nerve fibers, the symptoms of MS differ from person to person. They may include:
- Weakness or numbness on one side of the body, the legs, or the trunk
- Vision loss and/or prolonged double vision
- Pain or a tingling sensation in certain parts of the body
- An “electric-shock” sensation occurring with certain neck movements
- Lack of coordination, tremors, or an unsteady gait
- Slurred speech
- Changes in bowel and/or bladder function
Additionally, four different disease courses have been identified for MS: relapsing-remitting (MS (RRMS), clinically isolated syndrome (CIS), primary progressive MS (PPMS), and secondary progressive MS (SPMS). Depending on an individual’s MS type, the course of the disease may vary. The most common disease course, RRMS is characterized by the development of new or increasing neurologic symptoms -- called “attacks” -- followed by partial or complete remissions during which some or all symptoms may disappear while others will remain permanent. During this period of recovery, however, there is no apparent progression of the disease.
As many as 70 percent of people who are initially diagnosed with RRMS go on to develop a steady progression of symptoms without recovery periods, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is known as secondary-progressive MS.
Seniors and MS
Age-related changes are a fact of life for seniors. Unfortunately, the progressive nature of MS can exacerbate these changes. In addition to physical symptoms, many people with MS also experience anger, grief, fear, and confusion, while more than half experience moderate to severe clinical depression, according to the National MS Society. Learn more about the National MS Society: Who They Are, What They Do & Why.
This video offers insights into diagnosing depression in seniors.
While there’s no cure for MS, prompt treatment -- including medication, physical and occupational therapy (and the integration of adaptive devices), and cognitive rehabilitation -- can help manage symptoms, accelerate recovery from attacks, and even modify the course of the disease. Additionally, positive lifestyle changes, including a healthy diet, smoking cessation, and exercise can all help people with MS feel and live better.
Your aging loved one’s healthcare team can offer an invaluable partnership for helping to manage MS and its changing and/or worsening symptoms. Additionally, many advocacy and support groups -- both in person and online -- exist for helping both individuals living with MS and their caregivers cope.
Watch this video for useful tips in how to make the most of doctor visits.
While the unpredictability and uncertainties of MS can complicate the challenges of caregiving, understanding the disease is the best path toward helping a senior in your care enjoy a more fulfilling quality of life.
mmLearn.org offers a large library of free videos for caregivers of older adults, covering topics pertaining to senior care. Whether you are a healthcare professional or a family caregiver, if you are caring for an older adult we know that you will find mmLearn.org an essential learning and guidance tool for all of your caregiver training needs. Access our database of free online caregiver videos to continue learning today.