by Anne Ihnen, MA, LMHC
She was in her late fifties when the first symptoms appeared. On my visits home, she’d turn to me and ask, “What day is today?” “It’s Tuesday, Mom.” “And what are we doing today?” “Today we’re going to the zoo.” With a look of relief, she’d return to what she was doing, only to start up the same sequence of questions ten minutes later. Although it would be a few years before she was officially diagnosed with dementia — most likely Alzheimer’s disease — it was clear that something terribly wrong was happening to my mother.
Caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia hits adult children in uniquely troubling ways. The parent we once relied on to love, encourage, and support us is gone, and has been replaced by someone it can be difficult to spend much time with. They can become defiant and resentful of their increasing dependence on us, and we can feel guilty for not doing more. And if the relationship was abusive or strained, all the old wounds from that childhood trauma resurface into a relationship that’s losing any possibility of meaningful conversation. Our pain gets stirred up but it has nowhere to go.
We begin to grieve this loss, regardless of the relationship we’ve had with our parent, the moment the first signs appear. Anger, denial, and despair are common reactions. We continue grieving until their life ends, when the grief we’ve come to know as familiar changes into a more active form, one that’s mixed with relief.
We can become hypervigilant out of fear that we’re also losing our memory. We can convince ourselves that every instance of middle-aged forgetfulness is a sure sign that dementia is on its way. We might take up crossword puzzles and fill our medicine cabinets with supplements in an attempt to keep it at bay, but we can never be sure that it won’t hit us too someday.
We often become the primary caregivers, taking on even more stress at a stage of life where we have career, relationships, and our own families and health to attend to. Our guilt for not doing enough is often fed by others who tell us we shouldn’t “drug” our parents or “abandon” them to a nursing home. We can begin to distance ourselves from people who don’t understand what we’re going through. Our siblings might start battling with us over “what’s best,” which distances us even further from the people who could be our greatest sources of support.
If you are the adult child of a parent with dementia, psychotherapy can provide you a space to get support and to work through the myriad of difficult feelings you experience as you accompany your parent through the disease. In therapy, long-buried emotional wounds can be healed, opening the possibility for reconciliation, even when your parent is no longer able to communicate. A therapist can help you grieve the series of losses dementia brings, as well as help you find strategies for coping with the added stresses of caregiving. In addition to therapy, The Alzheimer’s Association has a wealth of resources: information, support groups, online discussion boards, and opportunities to volunteer. Go to www.alzwa.org to learn more about this wonderful resource.
The above article expresses the opinions of the author and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Women’s Therapy Referral Service.