Dealing with dementia

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Firsthand advice for managing a loved one with dementia

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Many years have passed since the loss of my mom to Alzheimer’s after an intense five-year battle. Today, I look back on those years with thanksgiving for having had the opportunity to care for my mother.

As children and grandchildren, we are indebted to those who bring us into the world, rear us, and love us. Fulfilling this responsibility is a mark of godly obedience. As the scriptures encourage us, “But any widow has children or grandchildren, they must learn to practice godliness toward their own family first and to repay their parents, for this pleases God” (1 Timothy 5:4).

Mom was a hardworking and independent woman who was born and reared in the rugged Appalachian Mountains of Southeastern Kentucky in the 1920s. Mother to eight rambunctious children, she audaciously held on to her independence, cutting firewood and carrying coal for a wood burning stove until the age of 83. At that time, we insisted that she allow my brother-in-law to remove the wood burner and convert the house to electric heat. After much protest, Mom finally agreed.

Shortly after, she suffered a major stroke and stayed in the intensive care unit for two weeks. Her doctor informed us that she needed a pacemaker to regulate her heartbeat to prevent another stroke. Although the surgery was particularly risky at her age, Mom decided she wanted to have it. The surgery went well, but she required constant care until she recuperated.

My two sisters and I developed a schedule where each of us spent individual time caring for her. During that time, it became obvious that she was suffering dementia, later diagnosed as Alzheimers.1

As the weeks turned into months and the months turned into years, her independence slipped farther and farther away, as did the mother I had known. Those years were quite challenging and filled with bittersweet memories.

I’d like to share some of the valuable things I’ve learned from caring for someone with dementia.

Let them be as independent as possible.

At the beginning of Mom’s illness, she did all she could to mask her condition, primarily because she didn’t want to lose her independence. Therefore, we allowed her to continue to do as much as she could for herself, and to make her own decisions as long as there weren’t any costly or dangerous outcomes.

Familiarize them with their surroundings.

Mom asked us to keep her at home as long as possible so that she would be in familiar surroundings. My two sisters and I lived within a few miles of my mother’s home, so it was easier for us to stay with her than to try to uproot her as we rotated our times to care for her. But, if it’s necessary to relocate your loved one, it’s wise to do so in the early stages of the disease so that he or she can adjust to his or her new environment.

Be flexible.

Learning to be flexible in situations will help prevent or lessen stress. Be willing to work with the other caregivers’ schedules if there is an emergency situation, special family event, or other unexpected situation that may require you to change your plans. You need to consider what’s best for all involved, for all the caretakers as well as for your loved one.

Take precautions.

One morning, Mom slipped out of the house and managed to walk a few blocks down the road while I showered. Thankfully, a family friend recognized her and offered her a ride home, which she accepted. After that, I made sure the doors were locked if I was occupied even for a brief period.

Plan meals.

There were days when Mom wanted to eat continuously. Other days, she’d barely eat a bite. I learned to make meals that could be stored or frozen and quickly reheated. I also kept many of her favorite snack foods accessible for late night eating binges.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Mom was adamant about choosing her own clothes for the day. At times, nothing matched, but I realized that was okay. If mom had a doctor’s appointment or we were going to be in public, I’d have her clothes ready after she showered, which for some reason, made it acceptable to her.

Enjoy the journey.

The simple things Mom enjoyed, such as sitting on the front porch, going for short drives on sunny days, or eating ice cream cones from the local cafe, I did with her as often as possible to enhance her life.

If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

I realized it wasn’t necessary to correct Mom’s faulty thinking if she was not in any danger. Once, my sisters and I had to attend a funeral of a close family member. Not wanting to leave Mom with anyone unfamiliar to her, my husband volunteered to stay with her. After my husband and I had left for home, Mom told my sister that she couldn’t be expected to babysit anymore, that she couldn’t think of anything to talk to my husband about. No harm was done and I left good enough alone, but promised Mom that she wouldn’t be required to babysit again.

God works all things for good.

It’s important to remind yourself that God can use your loved one’s condition and the opportunity to care for him or her to work His transforming power in your own life. The necessity to care for others sacrificially keeps us from becoming self-centered and unsympathetic. It also teaches us to number our own days and to live life to its fullest, taking every opportunity to serve Him while we are able.

Stay fit spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

With access to the Internet, as well as Christian television programs, it’s easy to listen to one’s teacher/preacher of choice. Mom seldom remembered who I was, but I could turn on her favorite preacher and she would recognize his voice immediately. Follow a daily reading plan and be consistent with it. Pray often. Remind yourself that if there were a better place for you to be to accomplish God’s purpose for your life, He’d have you there.

Make time for yourself and your own family. Recruit a couple of ladies from your church who would be willing to sit with your loved one occasionally while you have lunch with a friend, etc. All involved will benefit from you taking some time for yourself.

The better shape you’re in physically, the better you’ll be able to deal with the mental and emotional stress of caregiving. I walked daily on an elliptical in the living room next to Mom’s hospital bed. That was one thing there was plenty of time for, and something I enjoyed doing.

May God bless you in your endeavor to care for your loved one dealing with dementia. May it be done as unto the Lord as you live out Colossians 3:17:

“And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”

Sidebar

If you or a loved one is dealing with dementia, you are not alone and there is help! The Alzheimer’s Association (Alz.org) offers a wealth of information on Alzheimer’s disease along with various resources. The organization advances research to end Alzheimer’s while enhancing care for those living with it and has a free 24/7 helpline: 1-800-272-3900.