Personal Story: Caring for a Mother-in-Law with Alzheimer's

Content provided by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School
Excerpted from a Harvard Special Health Report

Florence was 77 years old when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She lived with her son Glenn and his wife Kathy for seven years before moving to a nursing home and then, after several years, to a specialized Alzheimer's care center. It wasn't until then that the couple realized the benefits of the expert care available in a setting specifically geared for patients with dementia. Kathy and Glenn learned some useful tips to manage Florence's cognitive limitations without upsetting her, as Kathy explained.

One approach we learned was to use "lie-lets." For example, Florence wondered why she hadn't heard from her sister, someone she was very close to. Rather than saying, "Don't you remember? Mabel died eight years ago," I simply and matter-of-factly explained that Mabel was on vacation in Florida and said she'd call as soon as she got back. This misinformation would ease Florence's anxiety and restore her equilibrium about the matter. Sometimes Florence would say that she wanted to go home. Instead of saying, "I'm sorry, you can't go home," we would tell her that we couldn't take her home that evening but would try to make arrangements to do so within the next few days. Most of the time, she'd forget her worry or request in a few hours or days. Trying to drill the truth into people with Alzheimer's is upsetting to them, and what's worse is that once they forget the truth, those upset feelings remain, but without a clear cause, which can be even more disturbing.

Before Florence went into the nursing home, we went through her old photographs and I asked who each person was and if she could remember the occasion. I made notes in the album, so Glenn and I could later recreate the scene for her. Some of the photos stuck with her — for example, a wedding cake she'd made — and it was something she would show to people with pride.

My relationship with Florence was a caring one, but often difficult even when she was healthy. When she first went into a nursing home, it was hard to accept that she'd reached a point where others could do a better job of caring for her than I could. The burden of caring for someone with dementia can take a toll, but I was surprised at the full weight of my grief when she died. In an odd way we became more attached during this very tough time.

The other advice I'd offer is to realize that sometimes, you just can't make it better. Just do the best you can to make your loved one know you're present and available.

Last Annual Review Date: 2009-02-01 Copyright: © Harvard Health Publications

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More than 5.3 million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer's disease, with a new person developing the disease every 70 seconds. Americans ages 65 and older with Alzheimer's and dementia pay three times as much in health care costs.