Alzheimer's blog

Letting go of the past lifts a weight from caregivers

By Angela Lunde June 1, 2011

Thank you for all your ideas about ways to address shadowing. There's nothing more helpful to caregivers than to have a "toolbox" full of strategies to assist with the challenging symptoms of Alzheimer's. Your comments underscore the deep commitment and love you have toward the one you're caring for.

Yet one of you recently asked, "What happens if the caregiver and the dementia patient do not have a loving relationship? How do both cope to live together?" This is an intriguing question and maybe a situation more common than we realize.

Symptoms of dementia such as suspiciousness, false accusations, paranoid delusions and aggression will put even the most loving and committed relationships under considerable strain.

So what happens when the relationship between caregiver and the person with dementia doesn't originate from a loving foundation? Certainly, the type of relationship we had in the past with the person impacts how we think about caregiving in the present.

In one of my favorite books, "Your Name is Hughes Hannibal Shanks", Lela Knox Shanks writes eloquently and candidly about her relationship and caregiving role with her husband, Hughes.

Although Lela loved him deeply and unconditionally, her idea of reframing the relationship with the Alzheimer's patient may be helpful. Lela writes, "The caregiver cannot retain the same familiar relationship with the patient as in the past — we now have to live with the patient as she or he is today and a new relationship must be formed. Carrying the emotions of our past relationship into the present only dissipates our energy and weighs us down."

Here's an example:

A couple weeks ago, Nick wrote that his wife of 46 years with Alzheimer's throws his clothes away. She believes he's having an affair and that his clothes are from the other woman. If Nick were to get angry and react to her accusations, he'd be allowing his wife, a person with a disease that destroys rational thinking and judgment, to determine his mood.

Reframing (rethinking) his relationship can help Nick accept that her dementia is speaking these accusatory words, not her. This releases Nick from interpreting what his wife says as a personal attack on him.

Another book, "A Dignified Life; the Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer's Care: a Guide for Family Caregivers," by Virginia Bell and David Troxel, describes how caregivers can form new, maybe even better relationships.

It tells the story of a son who had a troublesome relationship with his father since childhood. Yet today, the son cares for his father full time and says they've never been closer. The father has forgotten much of his past his relationship with his son. The son has realized that he, too, can make the choice to let go of the past. Of course, the son never imagined he would be taking care of his father, a man whom he disliked for much of his life, but, "What's past is past," says the son.

When we learn to reframe a long standing loving relationship, or one with a troubled past, we're given an opportunity to let go of that which no longer serves us - most often, our negative thoughts. As a result, we may just find that we are more compassionate and accepting in our caring for others, and for ourselves.

"He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love."

— the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

Jun. 01, 2011