Apr 27, 2014

3 Secrets to Getting Along Better With a Person Living With Dementia

3 Secrets Dementia | Alzheimner's Reading Room

Some persons living with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia may at times be extremely difficult to deal with, irritable, and disagreeable.

Dementia patients sometimes have personality changes that can be extremely negative. Formerly sweet loved ones can become argumentative and even verbally, emotionally or physically abusive.

What can you do about it?

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Marie Marley is the award-winning author of the uplifting book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy. Her website (ComeBackEarlyToday.com) contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer’s caregivers.
Some people with Alzheimer’s may at times be extremely difficult to get along with.

The memory and mental status of Ed, my beloved life partner of 30 years, were declining slowly and he was becoming very difficult to get along with.

I was at the end of my rope. I really was.

Desperate for a solution to the problem, I sought the advice of my friend and colleague Irene Moore, MSW, to lunch and discuss the  problem I was having with Ed.

Irene knew a lot about Alzheimer’s. Not only was she a specialist in geriatric social work, her mother had died from Alzheimer’s several years earlier, giving her a tragic personal experience no one should have to go through.

A few minutes into lunch Irene addressed the issue at hand: “So, how is Ed?”

Actually, I began, he is becoming impossible to be around. He is irritable, angry, mean, and at times, emotionally abusive.

That doesn’t sound good, Irene said somberly.

I love Ed, I said, but I just don’t think I can tolerate this much longer. Yet, I can’t possibly end our relationship, either. He would be lost without me.

He is getting really confused lately. Last Saturday evening he actually called the New York Times and complained because he had not received his Sunday paper.

When I reminded him it was Saturday he got angry.

He now gets angry over the smallest things.

We used to be able to discuss things we disagreed about, but if I express a contrary opinion now, he becomes hostile. It’s maddening.

Irene said, looking at me with empathy, you do have a problem indeed. I think he may be developing Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s? I repeated, immediately dismissing the notion. Well, I don’t care what he’s getting. I just don’t know how much longer I can take it.

I didn’t want to hear about or think about Alzheimer’s.

You have the option of ending the relationship, she offered. You know that, don't you?

That made me snap to attention.

Irene, I can’t do that,” I said, as though it was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. I love him. Besides, I told you, he couldn’t survive without me. How could I ever abandon him?

I know women who were married for as long as fifty years who, in similar situations, divorced their husbands.

How could I possibly do that?  I said. It would be morally reprehensible. He couldn’t make it through a single week alone. I have to take care of him. If I don’t, no one will.  I have no choice.

Well in that case, perhaps we need to talk about how to manage the situation.

Yes, please, I said.

Here are three important pieces of advice, she said.

Three Tips for More Effective Communication
  1. Don’t bring up topics you think may upset him or lead to a disagreement.
  2. If he starts to get agitated, abruptly change the subject.
  3. Don’t argue with him. Agree with everything he says, no matter how absurd.

I responded, if I follow your advice we can’t discuss politics, I said. Our views differ so much that would violate rule number one.

And, I could not talk about my job or personal problems because he’d get upset if I did not take his advice. That would violate rule number two.

And quite seriously, I can’t imagine myself agreeing with everything he says because he is wrong so often. I can’t imagine bowing my head and going along with whatever comes out of his mouth.

I can’t promise following this advice will stop all the fights, she said, but it will help. Why don’t you try it and see what happens?

Irene, I said, I can’t agree with him when he says stupid things.

When that happens just ask yourself,

What is more important, being right or communicating effectively?

That was a difficult question.

If I followed her advice it meant my relationship with Ed would change dramatically. We’d no longer be able to talk about whatever we wanted, or whatever topics naturally arose.

And – what I dreaded the most – I would not be able to be honest.

No matter how much I disagreed with him I’d have to pretend to concur. Our relationship would become superficial, dishonest and unreal.

But I decided to try it.

And that’s how it came to be that as Ed’s mental state deteriorated I agreed with him more and more.

About important things, unimportant things, political issues and silly things and serious things.

Although this whole plan seemed ridiculous at first, I found that it did stop most of our nasty fights, and our relationship returned to its previous tranquil status.

I eventually realized it really was better to have peace than to be right.

I learned that Alzheimer’s care giving and pride don’t mix.

During the same time period I observed some of his other loved ones interacting with him, and they did not use these techniques.

The result was that he became as angry with them as he had previously been with me.

I tried explaining the ‘new rules’ to these people but they refused to follow them. They paid a high price.

So the next time you find yourself ready to argue with your loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, ask yourself,

What is more important, being right or being happy?

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