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Coping with the Loss of a Loved One with Dementia

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Updated November 30, 2012

After losing a loved one with Alzheimer's, Lewy body dementia, vascular dementia or another kind of dementia, your emotions can run the gamut. While feelings and circumstances vary greatly, here are a few common reactions and suggestions of how to cope with those feelings:
  • Grief

    Grief is the most obvious emotion, although Alzheimer's often presents a more complicated process for grieving that may have started as soon as the diagnosis was made. The grief may have continued as you observed memory loss and challenging behaviors in your loved one, and then multiplied as he progressed to the later stages of Alzheimer's.

    Grieving is normal, good and necessary, but it's hard work. Expect that you may feel emotion swings and numbness from time to time. The gaping absence of your loved one may overwhelm you, yet some people find some comfort in sharing and reminiscing with others about their family member, either informally or at a support group.

  • Depression

    While grief is an expected reaction to a painful loss, depression is similar but ongoing and pervasive. Nancy Schimelpfening, the About.com Guide to depression, explains that grief and depression share symptoms such as "sadness, insomnia, poor appetite and weight loss." She goes on to say, however, that feelings of grief may fluctuate, such as feeling worse when it's your loved one's birthday and better when family and friend are present. Nancy clarifies that "major depression, on the other hand, tends to be more pervasive, with the person rarely getting any relief from their symptoms."

    If your symptoms continue to last and fit more with symptoms of depression, it's time to seek professional assistance.

  • Exhaustion

    After losing a loved one, you might just feel exhausted. Similar to having just run a marathon, the acknowledgement of fatigue can hit you after the race is finished for your family member. For some people, as long as they know they must keep up with the pace, they can do it, but it can often be at the price of extreme exhaustion.

    Following your loss, allow yourself time to recuperate. You might not be able to take an extended amount of time off from your job, but if possible, limit your other obligations to allow yourself some time to recover.

  • Guilt

    Feelings of guilt are not uncommon after the death of a family member or friend with Alzheimer's. Guilt can be triggered by wishing you could've spent more time with your loved one, a memory of an unpleasant interaction with her when you were younger, the occasional impatience you may have felt as her caregiver, or even a lack of the expected deep sorrow at the time of her death. If you had to place your family member in a nursing home, you might feel a sense of failure and guilt that you weren't able to care for her at home.

    Guilt can weigh you down and use up emotional energy, so if you're able, work on releasing it and reminding yourself that you did the best you could at the time. If you continue to carry that guilt, consider talking with a professional counselor to learn how to forgive yourself.

  • Lack of Purpose

    For some people, caring for their loved one becomes their full-time occupation and their identity, and provides them with purpose and joy. I've talked with several people who had to redefine themselves after losing their family member. Without that caregiver role and daily routine, they felt lost and unsure of what to do.

    Acknowledging these losses is important. In time, you may want to choose something new to give your life a little structure again, such as volunteering at the facility where your loved one lived, delivering Meals on Wheels, reading books to school children, or helping out at your church or community organization.

  • Relief

    Finally, some people experience a sense of relief following the death. Although they deeply miss their loved one, they may experience relief because they're not bound anymore by the needs and schedule of their family member. They may also feel a relief in knowing that the suffering for their mother is over, or their husband is no longer limited by a poor memory or an inability to communicate. For many people with Alzheimer's, their quality of life declined as the disease progressed, so there may be a sense of peace for their family members that the journey is now completed.

Sources:

Alzheimer's Association. Grief and Loss as Alzheimer's Progresses. Accessed November 28, 2012. http://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-grief-loss.asp

Alzheimer's Society. Grief and bereavement. Accessed November 28, 2012. http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/factsheet/507

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