Of all the diseases that can affect our loved ones, dementia is one of the most difficult. Your loved one may have been an intelligent individual who you enjoyed interacting with, but the effects of the disease on the brain may cause that person to become an almost distant stranger you barely know.
People facing the early stages of dementia generally understand that something is awry. They may become forgetful, have difficulty remembering names or performing ordinary tasks. Initially, your loved one may attempt to hide the challenges they face by offering a myriad of excuses. Eventually, though, as the disease progresses, your loved one’s frustration is likely to mount as he or she realizes things are getting worse and not better. The loss of independence and often the lack of understanding about what is actually happening becomes very frightening. Anger is sometimes an expression of fear, and as the closest individual to your loved one, you may bear the brunt of the angry outbursts often associated with dementia patients.
It is also important for family caregivers to recognize that dementia patients often lose the ability to reason, so what makes perfect sense to them can seem outrageous to others. Sometimes wanting to prove their abilities to maintain their own independence, a dementia patient can, and will sometimes, defy the instructions given by family and physicians. In these moments, it’s important to remember that your loved one does not have the full control or understanding of their actions that they did ten or twenty years ago.
So how do you, as a family caregiver, maintain a peaceful, positive relationship with your loved one?
First, patience. Yes, mom or dad may ask the same question 25 times a day. Yes, they may tell stories so off-base you’re tempted to lose it. Don’t. Your loved one sees the world through an entirely different filter, and losing your temper benefits no one. So, answer the questions repeatedly. Change the subject. Refocus your loved one on the flowers or animals in the backyard or on music. If those tactics are ineffective, remove yourself temporarily by taking a 10 minute walk or enjoying a calming cup of tea. Praying or venting with a friend (far away from your loved one, of course) can also help reel you back in and shift your perspective.
Second, do your best to avoid arguments. Your loved one’s stories may be driving you crazy, but arguments fuel tension at a time when your loved one needs reassurance that you will actually be there for them. Further, dementia patients can be quite stubborn, so they are less likely to back down in the face of conflict.
Third, do not take things personally. Dementia patients often lash out at the very loved ones who are attempting to help. Harsh statements can be hurtful coming from anyone, but absolutely devastating when said by your loved one. This is when it is critical to understand the effects of the disease on a person’s behavior and memory. Blame it on the disease, not the person, to reduce your stress and enable you to maximize your time with your loved one.
Fourth, get help. Your parent’s doctor can often prescribe medication to reduce their anxiety, so discuss the challenging behavior with them. They may have solutions you are not yet aware of. Also, your emotional and physical health is vital, too, so join a support group to connect with others going through similar experiences. Take care of yourself and see your doctor regularly.