Alzheimer's blog

Why do some caregivers cope better than others?

By Angela Lunde August 9, 2011

I was quite sure my last blog would create a wide and strong range of opinions, and indeed it did. A few of you were somewhat critical that I attempted to make "lemonade out of lemons." In many ways you're right, as that is the approach I choose.

I've been deeply involved with caregivers for over a decade. Most have devastating and heart-wrenching stories related to a loved one with Alzheimer's disease. For each of them, the progressive nature of the disease takes its toll — no one with Alzheimer's disease gets better.

The challenges and difficulties caregivers are met with can be similar. However, what differs vastly among caregivers is their acceptance of the situation, the ways in which they respond and ultimately cope. I believe you can choose acceptance, choose how to respond to a situation and choose how you cope. And it's these choices that can bring more ease to life even in the worst of circumstances.

Let me tell you a bit about Doris. I have known Doris for several years. She and her husband Roger have been involved in our early stage programs and Doris has been coming to support group for over 2 years. Here's a comment Doris made in our support group not long ago (paraphrased):

"When is there going to be a program or a place where trained professionals would meet with my husband Roger to get him to understand why he can't drive? I think there needs to be a place where I can take him where they would get through to him, so I don't have these battles every day. I explain to Roger all day long why he can't drive. I tell him he needs to talk with our daughter about his driving. I show him the results from his cognitive evaluation, and he still thinks he should drive. He doesn't want to listen!"

Clearly, Doris feels cheated that no one will come to her rescue and get her husband to understand. I can see and feel the frustration and anger that spill out of Doris. Getting through to Doris the reality that there's no getting through to her husband with Alzheimer's disease continues to be arduous work.

Doris is not alone. Almost all caregivers deal with issues of acceptance. It's part of the burden of Alzheimer's disease that it changes the brain and consequently the behaviors of the person you love. It's often these changed behaviors that are hardest to accept. Naturally, you want to fight it. You want the person to be as he or she once was.

In the face of the challenging behaviors brought on by Alzheimer's disease, how does one cope? Why is it that some caregivers seem to cope better than others? How can one find ease in such a devastating situation? These are real and honest questions that none of us can easily answer.

However, I've found that when caregivers begin to understand the truth in the following statements, they've taken a pivotal step toward being better able to cope:

  • People with dementia experience loss and loss of control. Feeling out of control naturally leads to behaviors of agitation, irritability, anger and depression. The more often caregivers tell the person what he or she can't do, the more the behaviors tend to escalate.
  • Dementia symptoms include a decline in the ability to communicate effectively through words, so behaviors such as irritability and aggression fill the void. In other words, there's a message behind the behavior.
  • People with dementia are not lying, lazy, aloof or disengaged. Rather they can't remember or process information because of the changes in their brain.
  • Lack of insight into one's limitations is a common symptom of Alzheimer's disease. People with Alzheimer's disease often can't admit something is wrong with them. This is due to how the disease affects their brain.
  • The physical changes in the brain cause new behaviors that people with Alzheimer's disease aren't able to control. They aren't choosing to be behave this way.

It's common for caregivers to blame or be upset with the person with dementia for not doing what they want or ask. Yet, the truth is you can't force someone with Alzheimer's disease to remember or learn, nor can you expect that logic will change their behavior.

When and if you believe these statements to be true, you begin to relieve yourself of some excess pain. And for most caregivers, a little more ease is a welcome gift.

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Aug. 09, 2011