Coping with Dementia in a Loved One: Imagine they have had a Head Injury

teddy bear head wrappedI have been speaking to audiences on recognizing and coping with dementia in a loved one and I share that the most useful coping mechanism for me was to imagine that my mom and dad had head injuries. For whatever reason, it allowed me to be much more compassionate and understanding when my parents said things that were hurtful or behaved poorly.

I know the dementia is out of their control, but I believe I was feeling as if it was a medical condition they were ignoring or even denying, when in reality, it’s a medical condition they can’t understand and do not recognize how their behavior had changed.

I don’t want to offend those with head injuries or their advocates – I just want to share that viewing my parent’s ailments as a head injury helped me reset my expectations and provide them with the love and support they needed. Visualized. 

The level of sneakiness to which I sank

coke offerWhile both of my parents have varying stages of dementia, its my mom that is difficult to assist. Some days she has trouble understanding and comes across as illogical and mean. I finally was able to approach her and be the type of caregiver I needed to be by telling myself she has a head injury that has changed her personality.

When she does not like what you tell her or how you say it, she get’s mean. She squints her eyes, her lips curl into a cruel smile and she will tell you what a horrible child you are, how disrespectful you have become, or challenge you to “prove it.” The only way for me to keep the conversation from escalating is to play smiling possum. I will muster a smile and just do not respond. I can usually find a way to excuse myself, knowing that when I return the conversation will repeat. If I’m challenged to respond, I will often smile, shrug my shoulders and say “I don’t know.”

I learned the “I don’t know” trick from my dad. As the one who has been living with my mom, he found this worked to end a conversation. At times I thought his memory was really bad (he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s), but when I would talk to my dad later about the topic, he would know the answer. In many situations, answering my mom’s question would only escalate her anxiety. Instinctively, he adapted.

My mom’s doctor prescribed medication (Ativan) to relieve her anxiety, and she won’t take it. I’ve tried a variety of methods with no success.

Knowing how difficult the coming day will be when we start the physical move of my parents from their independent living apartment to assisted living, I manage to remove all the Coke from my parents home. I decided I would bring her a Coke that includes one dose of Ativan as the doctor prescribed (I offered her a 1/4 of the can mixed with the pill I ground to a powder). Coke is one of the three things my mom will drink.

During this stage of my mom’s dementia, the Ativan seems to help minimize her anxiety and improve her daily interactions with everyone.

The first thing I did when I arrived was to ask “Mom, would you like some Coke this morning?” Outed.