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How to Maintain a Healthy Relationship with a Loved One Who Has Alzheimer's


Updated September 30, 2013

Over the last several years, I’ve observed many families and how they’ve coped with the challenges of Alzheimer’s in their loved one. The following suggestions are born not out of scientific research, but rather from my observations of courageous husbands, wives, partners, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and friends who placed a priority on loving each other and maintaining a healthy relationship, despite the challenges of Alzheimer's and other dementias.

  • Listen and reassure.

    If your wife has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she may need you more than ever to spend time listening to her. There's a grieving process often connected with receiving this type of diagnosis, so rather than rushing her through this, recognize her need, expect it, and support it. She may need to hear many times over that you still love her and that you will be there for her- not because she's forgetting that information, but because she needs that reassurance that Alzheimer's won't take that away from her.

  • Be realistic.

    Familiarity sometimes can breed unrealistic expectations. Because he's your dad and has always been able to balance the checkbook before, you may be tempted to dismiss his need for help. Or, if he can’t remember someone’s name, you may feel frustrated and think he’s exaggerating or not trying hard enough.

    Adjusting your expectations is one of the harder things to do, but doing so can help reduce your frustration or impatience with your loved one.

  • Learn about Alzheimer's.

    Understanding what Alzheimer's is, what kinds of symptoms you can expect and how you might react to those symptoms can help you navigate these uncharted waters.

  • Support each other.

    Remember that you’re not on different teams- you’re on the same team and playing against Alzheimer’s together. There are times when that may be easy to keep in mind, but there are also times when that may be more difficult to remember. If your partner exhibits challenging behaviors such as wandering, paranoia or aggression, reminding yourself that he isn't deliberately choosing those behaviors can sometimes help take the sting out of them.

  • Go through this with someone else.

    I knew a group of men whose wives had Alzheimer’s. They got together regularly for a men’s coffee time. Sometimes they talked about the disease, their struggles, their losses. Other times, they simply spent time drinking coffee with their good friends. I dare say their camaraderie benefited both them and their wives.

  • Protect your relationship by being willing to plan ahead.

    Too much pressure on one person can make it challenging to maintain a healthy relationship. Talk ahead of time about some future possibilities and care options, including the following:

  • Accept help.

    Do you really need to mow that lawn yourself when your grandson volunteered to do it? Do you shrug off offers from others for dinner or an hour of respite? Receiving help allows others to give it, which is also a gift. Learn how to receive it.

  • Monitor yourself and know what you can handle.

    If you’re the ever-present, dutiful spouse or adult child but are so tired and empty you snap at your loved one each time, are you really helping her? If you find yourself low on compassion and high on frustration, you may need to take some time out to renew your energy. Review these seven signs of caregiver overload.

  • Care for yourself.

    This is one of those reminders that is much easier to hear than to heed. With the goal of being selfless and giving to your loved one, many people give so much that they become sick, depressed or physically hurt. Being proactive by receiving support can prevent or reduce caregiver depression and medical problems.

    Consider joining a support group or getting more help at home, or if your family member's needs are too great, you might need to look into placing your loved one in an assisted living or nursing home. Caring for yourself is important so that you can continue to be able to support and be there for your family member.

  • Don’t blame.

    In the middle of stressful changes, it can be tempting to point to a particular aspect of your family member and attribute his memory loss to a habit or a weakness. For example, I knew one wife who blamed her husband for developing Alzheimer’s because he was overweight. Pointing fingers just doesn't help. It changes nothing, it's typically not accurate as Alzheimer's is a disease, not a choice, and it allows frustration to fester. Avoid blaming.

  • Enjoy today.

    If you’ve been hoping to take her on a cruise vacation and now feel it wouldn’t be wise, enjoy the little things of life together, like going for a walk or eating ice cream together.

  • Continue to celebrate each other.

    Sometimes it's easy to become so immersed in addressing the needs of Alzheimer's that you forget to do something fun together once in a while. So, hold hands. Go out for your anniversary. Take your mom out for lunch, or if it's too difficult, bring lunch or flowers to her. Reminisce about when you first met each other and fell in love, or talk about the adventures you had as a child with your parents. Celebrate his birthday, even if his dementia is more progressed.

    Along the way and in the long run, you want to be able to look back and know you did the right thing by honoring each other each day.

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