Start focusing on your emotional connection early on
Patients are now getting diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease even earlier than ever, when the disease has not fully progressed to a level of total confusion or disorientation. “During these early stages, try having conversations about what you both can do to stay connected as the disease progresses,” suggests Celeste Holbrook, PhD. “One exercise I practice with my patience is having the diagnosed individual tell their close family member or friend something special that they would like them to continue even long after he or she can no longer recognize that person. This gives the friend or family member some clarity and concrete action, to know that he or she can and should continue to do or say certain things despite the toll the disease has taken.” Even the concept of the Alzheimer’s patient knowing that these behaviors will continue long after they can properly respond is immensely encouraging. Though it’s important not to make promises you may not be able to fully keep. “Countless caregivers promise that they will never…put the loved one in a nursing home, bring strangers into the home, etc.,” says FitzPatrick. “When a caregiver makes and strives to keep such promises, anger and resentment often build which decreases the emotional connection.” Instead, tell your loved one you will arrange the best care you can possibly find without saying anything more specific.
If you are a caregiver, don’t do it alone
Most caregivers lose their emotional connection to the patient with Alzheimer’s disease sooner than other individuals in the patient’s life because they stop being a husband, son, grandson, etc. They begin looking at their loved ones as patients more than as their wife, mom, or grandmother. “Find other friends, family, and paid help so you can have some time just being emotionally connected, rather than having a ‘clinical’ relationship,” says FitzPatrick. If you are a full-time caregiver, and for whatever reason cannot seek outside help, be sure to schedule some time away so you can refresh your mind, fortify your patience, and get some space. “As with any long-term illness, you will be grieving the loss of your loved one far before they die, so it’s important to take measures to look after your own well-being—with therapy, meditation, time with other friends, or getting a professional to clean your house—so you can be open and available to emotionally connect with your Alzheimer’s patient,” says Dr. Holbrook. These tips can help you avoid caregiver burnout.
Focus on feelings, not facts
If a person adoringly says, “I have seven grandchildren,” focus on the blessings, not the fact that, in reality, they may only have four. This keeps you from being “that mean daughter who is always correcting me,” says Pamela Atwood, director of Dementia Care Services at Hebrew HealthCare in West Hartford, Connecticut. “If the person says, ‘I’m worried that Buddy isn’t home from school yet,’ provide reassurance that Buddy is safe—even though you know Buddy is 53 and at work.” One of the quickest ways to lose an emotional connection with your loved one who has dementia is by putting them in their place—even politely. “If your loved one believes it’s snowing outside, even in mid-July, it’s not worth correcting her, as she’s only going to feel bad that you are arguing with her and she likely won’t believe you anyways,” FitzPatrick says. What you can do instead is give lots of genuine compliments. “Compliments combat reduced self-worth and self esteem, and make you feel good, too,” says Atwood. Here’s what caregivers can expect from the 7 stages of Alzheimer’s disease progression.