Maintaining Relationships with Alzheimer’s Patients

Maintaining Relationships with Alzheimer's Patients

Maintaining Relationships with Loved Ones with Alzheimer’s: A New Approach to Relating

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a heartbreaking diagnosis, not just for the person with the disease, but also for all those who love them. As the disease progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize the person they once were, leading to a sense of loss even when they are physically present. However, understanding the effects of Alzheimer’s on mental and emotional responses can help shift our expectations and enable us to adapt to a new way of relating with our loved ones.

It’s Not You, It’s the Disease

According to Virginia Wadley Bradley, a professor emeritus of medicine, gerontology, geriatrics, and palliative care at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, it is crucial to differentiate the disease from the person as early as possible. By understanding the changes happening in the person’s brain and how they affect their thoughts and actions, we can provide empathy and support.

Alzheimer’s disease can be divided into three stages: early, middle, and late. In the early stage, memory begins to fail, making it challenging for the person to remember important things such as taking medications or paying bills. As the disease progresses into the middle and late stages, these symptoms worsen, and the person’s emotional responses may become unpredictable. It becomes harder for them to control their emotions, leading to anger, sadness, or frustration. Eventually, they lose the ability to perform basic self-care tasks.

These changes in behavior can be distressing for both the person with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones. It’s a grieving process, acknowledging that the relationship we once had can never be the same. However, it’s important to remember that the person we love is still there, despite losing many abilities.

A New Way to Relate

The first step in maintaining a relationship with a loved one with Alzheimer’s is accepting their diagnosis and allowing a new relationship to form. This involves embracing who they were and meeting them where they are through a care approach called relationship-centered care.

Relationship-centered care focuses on tailoring care to the individual’s unique abilities and preferences, as well as those of the family. It involves involving the family in all decisions and preserving dignity and compassion for the person with Alzheimer’s. This approach rejects the one-size-fits-all mentality and recognizes the importance of the relationship between the patient and their family caregiver(s).

On a day-to-day basis, relationship-centered care relies on the caregiver’s knowledge of the past relationship with their loved one. Each day may bring different challenges, and it’s up to the caregiver to judge and understand the person’s reactions.

To keep relationships strong when a loved one has Alzheimer’s, here are five ideas for relationship-centered care:

  1. Recognize the familiar sparks: Just because your loved one can’t participate in life as they once did doesn’t mean they won’t find pleasure in activities they used to enjoy. Look for sparks of their former self and focus on these aspects rather than dwelling on what’s missing. For example, playing their favorite music or involving them in activities they excelled at can bring them joy and a sense of purpose. Keeping familiar photos and cherished items in their environment can also provide comfort and help refocus their attention.

  2. Roll with it: Alzheimer’s symptoms can vary from day to day. Maintaining a familiar routine is recommended, but be prepared for changes and adapt accordingly. Being flexible and adapting to your loved one’s responses and moods can help maintain emotional well-being for both of you.

  3. Redefine expectations: It can be frustrating when your loved one can no longer perform simple tasks or forgets basic information. Instead of correcting or emphasizing their errors, try redirecting or changing the subject. It’s essential to maintain a positive attitude and avoid triggering their agitation. “Don’t you remember?” is not as effective as redirection or distraction in keeping the conversation positive.

  4. Keep closeness: Alzheimer’s can make individuals and caregivers feel isolated. Encourage family members and friends to stay connected with your loved one in ways that are comfortable for them. Record video messages or create scrapbooks of memories, names, and dates to celebrate special occasions. These connections can bring joy to your loved one and bridge the gap caused by the disease.

  5. Take care of yourself: Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is a long-term commitment, and it’s crucial to prioritize your own mental and physical well-being. Find support through local support groups or online communities offered by organizations like the National Institute on Aging. Sharing experiences and problem-solving with others facing similar challenges can be immensely helpful. Make time for self-care activities, such as enrolling your loved one in adult day care or seeking help from other family members or hired caregivers.

While Alzheimer’s disease brings changes in how we relate to our loved ones, understanding the impact of the disease and using a relationship-centered approach can help us discover new ways to cherish every interaction. By accepting the changes, adapting our expectations, and maintaining a positive attitude, we can build new connections and maintain strong relationships throughout the journey of Alzheimer’s.