How can caregivers watch their parents decline right before their eyes?

Q: It hurts to see my father with Alzheimer's deteriorating before my eyes. How can I accept the decline?

A: Many people who have experienced a loved one's dementia have said that given the choice, they'd rather deal with almost any other ailment, no matter how painful or debilitating. There's little we can do to fix the deterioration of memory, communication skills, and reasoning that dementia steals away. Few experiences are as frustrating as watching a once-vibrant person deteriorate into a confused stranger. It's not fair, it's not right, and it's hard to accept gracefully.

Try to remain calm. Pain and helplessness breed anger, and anger about the situation may spill over onto the person. Answering the same question 20 times in one afternoon or hearing your loved one recite a skewed account of events for the hundredth time can make you want to scream, but losing your cool helps nobody. Remind yourself that your father did not develop dementia to annoy you: He's not doing it on purpose, and he can't help it. And it isn't your fault, either. It just happened.

So change the subject. Suggest that you go out on the patio together and look at the flowers. If all else fails take a break, and do something that will help you regain control. Take a walk or grab a cup of tea. Call a friend. If you can keep your wits about you, remain in control, and take care of yourself, you'll be more "present" (and pleasant) for him, and you'll both benefit.

Dr. Robert Bornstein, PhD

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Robert F. Bornstein, PhD is Professor of psychology at Adelphi University, and has published more than 150 articles and book chapters in psychology. He co-authored (with Mary A. Languirand, PhD) "When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In-Home Care."

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