Single mothers who also care for an older adult with Alzheimer’s or dementia know too well the devastating decline they observe and confront in their loved one.
The person they knew and loved seems to be lost in behaviors that frustrate, anger and depress the single parent, who also is struggling with childrearing.
At my work, we have a caregivers’ group to provide support and programming to individuals who provide care and support for babies, toddlers, tweens, teens and older adults. In addition, I write and edit a newsletter focused on issues of interest to this particular group.
In this column, I discuss techniques for responding to repetitive behaviors and mistaken identity and conversation-starters to communicate changes in the older adult as they deteriorate over time. This information was published in our February, March and April newsletters.
Alzheimer’s and Repetitive Behaviors
Individuals with dementia may slip into repetitive behaviors, a tremendous source of frustration for single parents who feel helpless to end the questioning or stop the actions.
Sometimes, single parents can ascertain the reasons for these behaviors by asking their loved one questions requiring yes or no responses, but if these behaviors are scrambled in their mind or do not have any sufficient reason for occurring, the seniors may become agitated, aggressive or even violent.
One approach to responding to these behaviors is using distractions, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Distractions can help the individual with dementia simply get their mind off whatever is nagging or preoccupying them.
Following are some healthy and safe distractions that caregivers can explore so their loved one can engage the world around them in a positive way:
- Ask Another Question. Single parents can change the course of the senior’s behavior by asking a question unrelated to the issue over which they are belaboring. For example, you could ask about an incident from the senior’s past or something in their physical vicinity.
- Suggest a Snack. A healthy, low-calorie snack could refocus the individual with dementia. The treat should be prepared in advance and placed where the senior can see and smell it.
- Change the Scene. If the senior’s repetitive behavior is associated with their location, a change in scenery may help. Leading them to another room with a soothing environment that is calm and well-lit could be a sufficient distraction.
- Pursue a Favorite Interest. This approach works if the interest is not the source of the senior’s fixation. The single parent can choose a preferred activity, such as knitting, reading, walking or singing, or select an object to divert the senior’s attention.
- Use Humor. Laughter is a wonderful distraction. Sharing a funny, family story can lighten the mood. A short, amusing video on Facebook or YouTube or a joke can break the tension created by a senior’s repetitive behavior.
Regardless of the approach taken, caregivers inevitably may struggle with being patient with their demanding loved one. Overcoming this frustration can be challenging as the repetitive behaviors worsen with the individual’s age.
Alzheimer’s and Mistaken Identity
One of the most heartbreaking experiences for single parents is realizing that their loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia believes they are someone else. You are no longer their child but their spouse — or vice versa.
With each passing year, these incidents of mistaken identity leave single parents feeling frustrated, dismayed and awkward.
Unfortunately, the damage from Alzheimer’s disease begins 20 years before the symptoms actually present themselves. As a result, those suffering from dementia may recognize a loved one as they appeared decades earlier.
This “snapshot,” which becomes lodged in their consciousness, may explain why caregivers are mistakenly identified as spouses — not the adult child — because of their physical resemblance, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
When these incidents occur, single parents should understand that their loved one is living in their perceived reality resulting from their mental decline.
Instead of engaging in an argument, caregivers can use visual cues, such as photographs, to reveal how a person looked years ago and how they look now. Doing so will help the caregiver work with their loved one to point out the differences and establish their actual identity.
Another approach is for the single parent to announce who they are when they arrive for a visit with their loved one. This technique can help your family member determine who you are. If the loved one persists in their delusion, the caregiver should bank on the passage of time to help break down the mistaken identity — at least for that visit.
Taking a low-key approach while providing ongoing reassurance for the loved one is a helpful tactic that requires patience and teamwork from affected family and friends.
Delusions, including mistaken identity, can be one of the most challenging symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Tips for Talking about Dementia
For individuals with a loved one who has dementia, social gatherings present serious challenges that require thoughtful communication on the part of the single parent, and compassion and patience on the part of family and friends.
Explaining the changing disposition of a person with dementia is essential to preparing family members and friends as much as possible.
Alzheimer’s, the most common cause of dementia, not only causes loss of memory, but it impairs an individual’s judgment, senses of sight and smell, problem-solving and language skills, and their understanding of the passage of time.
As these limitations emerge and intensify, individuals with dementia can become anxious, withdrawn, fearful, angry and even violent.
Sharing these developments with family members and friends helps ready them for the loved one they are now — not the loved one they experienced before.
Following are talking points or prompts to help single parents begin that conversation:
- “I’m writing/calling to let you know how things are going at our house. While we’re looking forward to your visit, we thought it might be helpful if you understood our current situation before you arrive.”
- “You may notice that ____ has changed since you last saw him/her. Among the changes you may notice are ____. I’ve enclosed a picture so you know how ____ looks now.”
- “Because ____ sometimes has problems remembering and thinking clearly, his/her behavior is a little unpredictable.”
- “Please understand that ____ may not remember who you are and may confuse you with someone else. Please don’t feel offended by this. He/she appreciates your being with us and so do I. Please treat ____ as you would any person. A warm smile and a gentle touch on ____’s shoulder or hand will be appreciated more than you know.”
- “I would ask that you call before you come to visit or when you’re nearby so we can prepare for your arrival. Caregiving is a tough job and I’m doing the very best I can. With your help and support, we can create a memory we’ll treasure.”
Single parents who are in need of help should contact their local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
On Thursdays, I share a blog about a day in the actual life of a single parent.
Starting the summer of 2021, my son, Joseph, is writing a monthly column titled In My Son’s Words where he describes his experiences as a teenager and as a child of a single parent.
Twice a month, instead of a personal post, I put together one where I assemble news on and about single parents nationally and globally.