Kay Bransford calls her parents the "senior edition of Bonnie and Clyde." Both have been recently diagnosed with dementia, but have been showing signs of forgetfulness for the past year or two.
Bransford recalls her parents, who have both had their driver's licenses revoked but continue to drive, telling her the story they'll tell police if they're ever pulled over. In that moment, Bransford is certain the couple knows that they're not allowed to drive, and are defiant about breaking the law. But just minutes later, the couple has forgotten the story completely and they don't remember even having driver's licenses. It's just one of the many stories Bransford has about her parents' deteriorating behavior. She admits, she sometimes wonders whether her parents are manipulating her and others, and that just adds to the guilt caregivers like her often experience.
"They're not the parents I knew," says Bransford, who cares for her 81-year-old mother and 80-year-old father. "It took me a while to realize that. In frustration I thought, ‘Is this the woman my mom really is?' She's saying so many things my mom would never have said. I know it's a manifestation of the disease, but in the moment, I took it personally."
Amanda Smith, M.D., medical director of the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute at the University of South Florida estimates that one-quarter of the caregivers she interacts with have concerns similar to Bransford, and they question her about whether their parents are manipulating them.
"Sometimes caregivers assume that (their loved ones) are being manipulative because they just can't believe their behavior," she explains. But in reality, people with dementia aren't able to think through the process of manipulation.
Adds her USF colleague, Eileen Pioley, an Alzheimer's education director, short-term memory is the first to go for dementia patients. But it's not uncommon for people to have mixed dementia, with different parts of the brain being affected. In one form of dementia called Lewy Body, memory quickly fluctuates. If a patient has frontotemporal dementia (also known as Pick's Disease), it effects the part of the brain that filters behavior. So the person may do or say things that are socially inappropriate, but they have no gauge of right or wrong, which is why a loved one may lash out and make hurtful statements.
Additionally, people with dementia often know that they're losing control and become afraid. Like a child, they act out because they've lost the ability to help themselves. Those emotions may also cause a patient to become easily agitated.
Notes Poiley, "The cognitive skills we have, dementia patients lose: logic, reasoning, problem-solving, decision-making. So a patient really couldn't be manipulative."
For those taking care of a person with dementia, there are several ways to cope with the conflicting emotions that most caregivers experience.
- Don't take it personally: There is nothing to be gained by thinking your parent is being manipulative. Poiley believes this just adds to a caregiver's stress. Instead, blame the disease and not the person. Set a goal to maximize and enjoy the time you have with them.
- Practice empathy: Kevin Henning, M.D. chief medical director at Amedisys Home Health Care, encourages caregivers to consider what their loved one is going through. "It's hard for dementia patients to lose independence and it's scary for them."
- Avoid arguments: "You will not win an argument with a dementia patient. You can try to reason with them but you'll never get anywhere," adds Dr. Henning. This advice has been especially helpful for caregiver Kay Bransford, who says she no longer disagrees with her parents on issues she knows are untrue.
- Take a break: If you do find yourself arguing with your loved one, walk away for a few minutes. It's very possible the person with dementia won't remember the conversation, let alone the argument after a few minutes. It's also important that as a caregiver, you get respite. "Caregiving is a 24/7 job," adds Dr. Henning. "You have to get away from it sometimes." Look into adult daycare for dementia patients, or see if another family member or home healthcare professional can care for your loved one for a few hours, so you can get a break.
- Listen and reassure: It can be hard when what a loved one says is illogical, but it's important to listen and be patient with them. No one chooses to have dementia, so reassure your loved one as best you can that you are there to help them through this journey.
- Look for triggers: Try to get to the bottom of what drives your loved one's behavior, suggests Dr. Smith. It may be environmental factors – for instance, your loved one may be cold, but can't express that to you. Or your loved one may feel lost and alone. Consider what sparks outbursts or on-going arguments.
- Get help: Some medications can be very effective in assisting dementia patients with the anxiety they feel, so be sure to discuss your loved one's behavior with their doctor or other healthcare professionals. It's also important to seek emotional assistance as a caregiver when you need it. Find a support group where you can share your experiences and know that others are going through the same thing.
- Have a plan: Bransford wishes her parents had made their wishes about caregiving known to her and her siblings before they became ill. If possible, have your loved one consider the pros and cons of assisted living, nursing homes, home health care and other options, and have them decide how they want to spend their final days before their condition deteriorates.
While it's still not easy for Bransford to reconcile the memory of her parents just a few years ago with their current condition, she considers that acceptance a mourning process. And Bransford likens her parent's behavior to people who have suffered brain trauma. "I have to remember that they're not doing things to be mean or cruel – there's something wrong with their head. It doesn't always take away the doubt, but it does get easier."