Alzheimer’s Disease: How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

The following is reprinted from the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) guide on Alzheimer’s disease. You can read their full guide here.

For people with Alzheimer’s disease, research shows that:

  • Physical activity can improve memory.
  • Regular exercise may delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Regular exercise may delay the decline in ability to perform activities of daily living in people who have Alzheimer’s disease.

As the movement experts, physical therapists can design exercise programs for people with a variety of health conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease.

In the early and middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, physical therapists focus on keeping people mobile and help them continue to perform their roles in the home and in the community. In the later stages of the disease, physical therapists can help people keep doing their daily activities for as long as possible, which reduces the burden on family members and caregivers. Physical therapists also can instruct caregivers and family in how to improve safety and manage the needs of a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Physical therapy can help improve quality of life and possibly delay the need for institutionalization.

People with Alzheimer’s disease develop other conditions related to aging, such as arthritis, falls, or broken bones. Physical therapists are trained to treat these conditions in people who have underlying Alzheimer’s disease. Therapists take into account the impact of the disease on other health conditions, on general health, and on the individual’s ability to understand important instructions.

The therapist may use various teaching methods, techniques to simplify instructions, and unique approaches, including:

  • Visual, verbal, and tactile cueing – The physical therapist provides “cues such as pointing to objects or gesturing. For instance, lifting up both arms can signal the person to stand up. Cues can also be given verbally with short, simple, or one-step instruction. Tactile clues holding someone’s hand to have them walk with you. Sometimes, 2 or 3 cueing techniques are used simultaneously.
  • Mirroring – With this technique, the physical therapist serves as a “mirror,” standing directly in front of the person to show them how to move. To help the person raise his or her right arm, the therapist’s left arm would be raised.
  • Task breakdown – Physical therapists are trained in how to give step-by-step instruction by breaking down the task into short, simple “pieces” to be completed separately. For instance, if the therapist wants to teach a person how to safely move from lying in bed to sitting in a chair, the therapist might have the person practice rolling to the side, then pushing up to sitting, then moving to a chair in separate steps.
  • Chaining– The physical therapist can provide step-by-step instructions by linking one step to the next step in a more complicated movement pattern. This technique usually is used once task breakdown has been successful and unites the separate steps of moving from lying in bed to sitting in a chair, to make it one fluid movement.
  • Hand over hand facilitation – The physical therapist takes the hand or other body part of the person who needs to move or complete a task and moves that body part through the motion.

Although people with Alzheimer’s disease usually maintain the ability to walk well into the late stages of the disease, balance and coordination problems often lead to walking difficulties. The physical therapist will train the muscles to “learn” to respond to changes in the environment, such as uneven or unstable surfaces.

Please read the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) full guide on Alzheimer’s disease here.

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