DEALING WITH ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE IN A LOVED ONE
When I was born, my mother told me that my father no longer came to visit her in her hospital room. Instead, he spent all his time with his face pressed against the glass of the nursery window, admiring the newest addition to the family-me. For as long as I can remember, my father has always called me his baby, and has even bragged about it to others. I’ve had little nicknames like “Punkin” and even “Bubbly.” Even though it breaks my heart, it’s the memories like these that have compelled me to write this article.
As we grow up, we never really think about the day when our roles will reverse, and we will become the caregivers of our parents. Yet that is what happens, especially when one or more parents has Alzheimer’s, or some other chronic, often times debilitating disease that requires some form of outside care. For the adult child dealing with an aging, chronically or terminally ill parent, the impact of the situation can be overwhelming at times. That’s why it’s essential to have a support network you can rely on. Dealing with the day to day activities of simply living can be a challenge for even the most robust individual as they watch their beloved (or sometimes not) parent(s) dealing with a condition or disease that will ultimately cause their demise.
When I do visit my parents, which isn’t as often as it should be, for obvious, or maybe not-so-obvious reasons, I brace myself for the inevitable-the constant repetition of stories I’ve heard countless times before. For some reason, my father has no trouble remembering what happened fifty years ago, but he can’t remember what he had for breakfast that morning. Even though I know that Alzheimer’s is an insidious disease that has left my father helpless to stop his constant story-telling, that doesn’t stop the irritation that comes creeping in, just as it doesn’t stop the guilt I feel for being irritated. However, the repetition of too-familiar stories isn’t the only issue facing my beloved father. His driving privileges have been revoked, and he is no longer allowed to casually get one of his shotguns or rifles from his gun cabinet, go outside, and shoot birds or squirrels at will. My mother has confided that she’s seriously considering having an alarm installed that will let her know if the front door is opened during the night. Hearing this, I knew that my father’s condition was much worse than I had acknowledged. Can someone say “Another serving of guilt, please?”
Despite the fact that my father is 79 and my mother is 77, she seems to be coping with my father’s condition extremely well. Thanks to a handful of concerned and helpful family members (myself included), we make sure that everything is taken care of regarding meals, medical appointments/procedures, medications, etc. However, my parents have been married for well over 50 years, and we are all dreading that inevitable day when one of them dies. This may sound horrible, but considering the situation, I personally feel that the best-case scenario would be if they somehow managed to die together. That is NOT to say that I’m planning to see to their mutual demise. My point here is that they have become so dependent upon the other that the mere thought of trying to envision one without the other is inconceivable.
One of the most important things to remember, whether you’re caring for aging parents or know someone who is, don’t hesitate to offer a helping hand. My mother, being the independent, hard-headed woman that she is, absolutely refuses to take a solitary respite from caring for my father. Her excuse is that wherever she is, he wants to be also. I’ve told her several times that she cannot continue to do this on her own, that at some point it will take its toll, and alas, it has. My mother, who used to see a bit of dust on the coffee table and proclaim that her house was a mess, recently confided to me that there are certain things that just aren’t as important anymore, housework being one of them. That’s not to say that my mother resides in a pig sty-rather, it means that I was shocked during a recent visit when I saw that at three in the afternoon, her bed had yet to be made.
The best advice I can give when it comes to dealing with aging, chronically or terminally ill parents (or any other family member you’re close to and happen to be caring for) is to simply be there to offer a helping hand, a sympathetic ear, a word of encouragement or comfort. For me, that means telephone calls, in-person visits, asking if they want me to make dinner, asking if there’s anything that needs to be done in the house, inquiring about my father’s health in general. Offering to sit with my father while my mother goes to Walmart for an hour just to have some time to herself is useless, but there’s no harm in offering that option to your family member. If you, like me, deal with issues such as guilt, there’s only one way to remedy that, and that is to actually get up and DO something for or with your parent(s) or other relative. When you look back and realize how quickly these years have flown by, you’ll realize that the clock is still ticking. Make the most of what time you have left by showing the same love, care, concern, and compassion for your parents as they have shown to you. That will make everyone’s burdens a little easier to bear.