Caring for the caregiver of a person with dementia

“After 50 years of marriage, my wife doesn’t recognize me now. The other day she called the police to take me away because she thought I was a stranger.”

“My husband wakes me up five or six times every night to ask whether the kids are home. They haven’t lived with us for years. I’m so exhausted I can barely make it through the day.”

“My mother just isn’t the same person she used to be. I know it’s not her fault, but sometimes I get short-tempered with her. The whole thing makes me so sad.”

While advances in health care have extended life expectancy, you may have observed that those advances come with unanticipated challenges. Many of us now live into our later years with chronic illnesses that need ongoing care.

Dementia, one of the most challenging chronic illnesses, is diagnosed when a person is no longer able to live successfully without help as a result of problems with memory, attention, or certain other mental functions. There are many causes, and Alzheimer’s disease is the most frequent.

In Delaware, where about 1 in 6 residents is 65 years old or older, dementia is no stranger. And the families who help people affected by memory problems know how tough it is to provide that care.

Dementia burdens a whole family. Much of the care is provided by spouses, who may have health problems of their own. Sometimes, the caregivers are adult children who steal time from their own spouses and children in order to share in the care of a failing parent.

Caring for someone with dementia is different from helping someone with cancer or heart disease. A person whose memory and understanding are disappearing may be unable to relate in a normal way, to remember the kindness of caring acts, to show gratitude, to control angry impulses, to avoid risky behavior, or even to recognize their caregivers. Caregivers often experience physical exhaustion, illness, and depression.

While care within a residential facility may eventually become necessary, for many families this step often appears unaffordable or too drastic a step to take.

The good news is that there are many resources available to help caregivers whose loved ones have dementia. Your primary care clinician or a specialist may suggest that you access services such as home health care, an adult day care program, the Alzheimer’s Association, or an attorney knowledgeable about elder law. Another resource in Delaware is the Swank Memory Care Center at Christiana Care Health System, which is the state’s first and only outpatient program dedicated to the evaluation and care of older adults with dementias.

Although dementia is a disease that impacts nearly every family in some way at some point in their lives, you don’t have to deal with it alone.

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