How to cope with a loved one with dementia

michaela-parksBy Michaela Parks |

It was in Tarpon Springs at the sponge docks, wandering from shop to shop, when my grandmother realized she was losing not only her memory, but also her independence.

“Mom, you have to understand, I’m the parent now, not you,” my mother told my grandmother as she pushed her in a wheelchair.

Slowly, my grandmother put her head down.

More than 15 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. After having spent my entire summer helping my mother take care of my grandmother who has dementia, it’s given me a new understanding of what it’s like coping with loved ones who have this type of disease.

Day in and day out, this disease is harder to look past than most. Especially when a loved one is going through it. One of the hardest things to accept is that this person is no longer a guardian–their minds can go as far back as when they were in the womb. So caregivers generally have to take on the role as a parental figure, which in my case, I went from being a granddaughter to being a nurse. Medicine twice a day, three meals a day, dressing and undressing, making sure she has completed three breathing treatments, and then there’s the whole communication part. Some instances, my grandmother would start on one story and then go to an entirely different story. Along with this came a mix of emotions. Some days would start off really great but then as the day progressed her mood would go from happy, to sad, to angry–anything would trigger her emotions.

Throughout the summer I learned plenty of things about dementia patients, but there are a few key aspects that I took away over all.

One morning my grandma woke me up at 6:30 in the morning, she thought there was a storm coming even though in reality it was bright and sunny outside. During that moment, I was a little mad but then I looked at her face and you could clearly see the frightened look in her eyes. Suddenly I realized that this is not her. The disease doesn’t make the person, they are still the same loved one you’ve known for a countless number of years. You have to remember that.

If one thing in their schedule is messed up then their whole day could be ruined. Something as small as their favorite sports team not playing that day can throw their emotions into overdrive. So continuously remind them that it’s going to be a happy day. Encourage them, don’t discourage them.

When taking care of my grandmother, my mom and I would try and do things to keep her mind off all the thoughts in her head. Things like going to Kohl’s, doing yoga, walking the dogs, reading a book to her–anything. Keeping their mind active can prolong the disease.

When I was visiting my aunt and uncle in Kentucky/Ohio, we took my grandma with us. While we were there, we decided to go to the mall. After an hour of walking around from shop to shop, suddenly, my grandma completely flipped and caused a scene. Ripping my aunt’s necklace off her neck, and telling us she hated us. As we were trying to escape out of the mall, a lady came up right next to my mom and said, “it’s okay, I know what you’re going through … my mother has the dementia as well, don’t ever feel embarrassed.” Slowly my the corners of my mother’s mouth lifted and formed a smile. Just a few words helped my mom’s outlook on the whole moment. Don’t be afraid to take your loved ones in public, because truth be told, most people can relate to the situation. So go to the mall, grocery shopping–it will be okay.

So along with the second point I made, tell them you love them everyday. Elderly people with Alzheimer’s or Dementia tend to have their depressed days so a simple “I love you” can mean way more than you think. An example of this was when I was laying on the bed next to my grandma and she was upset about having to take her medicine. I could see the frustration in her face so I just told her, “you know, I love you.” All at once, she took the medicine from my hand and pointed for the cup of water on the night stand, I handed it to her, she swallowed the medicine and said, “I love you too.”

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