Dear Dr. K,
I live with my wife, who has Alzheimer’s.
I don’t argue or try to correct my wife when she misremembers or confabulates but this makes for two different worlds – hers and mine – and so we have less in common and grow apart. Is this the only option or have you better advice? — D.T.
First and foremost, I want to thank you for everything you’ve done, and are doing, for your wife with Alzheimer’s. It’s not an easy journey, and she’s very fortunate to have you involved.
Your question really speaks to the relationship issues that arise in Alzheimer’s caregiving. As the disease changes your wife’s brain, this is going to change the way you and she relate to each other.
I’m glad you are looking for advice on this topic, because maintaining and improving your emotional connection can yield big benefits for both of you, in the short-run and in the long run. In fact, it’s quite possibly the most important thing that you can do for yourself and your wife.
Why maintaining an emotional connection is so important in Alzheimer’s
Feeling more connected will reduce stress for you both. This leads to three very important benefits:
- It will help your wife have the best brain function possible;
- It will help you manage caregiving challenges a little better;
- It will improve your health and well-being.
In my opinion, reducing stress and improving emotional connection can probably do more for her brain health than most dementia medications, and most conventional medical interventions. (Avoiding delirium, however, might be equally valuable.)
The mind-body-heart connection is that important!
Plus, it’s a win-win, since what improves your relationship will help reduce the stress that caregiving can put on your own health.
So, my opinion as a doctor is that this is important enough to your health, and your wife’s health, that you should seriously consider investing time — and possibly money — in this nurturing of your relationship.
How to counter the way Alzheimer’s tends to drive couples apart
Now, like most medical doctors, I’m not an expert in optimizing relationships. So when families approach me with questions like yours, I generally refer them to resources outside the doctor’s office.
Below, I share my current favorite resources. And then I’ll share some tips from two colleagues who have special expertise in helping families coping with Alzheimers.
My top recommendations, based on personal experience with these resources:
- Try watching Teepa Snow’s videos about better connecting with people with dementia. She has a really warm and insightful approach, and several of her short videos are free online. I especially recommend the videos on meaningful activities, challenging behaviors, and music.
- For a book with a variety of helpful tips and insights, try Surviving Alzheimer’s, by Paula Spencer Scott. You can read my review of it here. Added bonus: there’s a chapter with insights from Teepa Snow.
- Have at least a few sessions with a trained therapist or counselor. Getting hands-on support and coaching from a good professional can yield huge benefits for your relationship and your day-to-day life. Remember, this is for YOUR wellbeing and health, along with your wife’s wellbeing.
- Connect with others caring for spouses and relatives with dementia. If you can’t make it to an in-person support group, try an online forum. You can find the Alzheimer’s Association‘s forum for spousal caregivers here.
Recommendations from my colleagues in counseling and social services:
1) As your wife loses her ability to be your companion I suggest you find activities the two of you can do together – go to the zoo, a garden park, museum – and do these at non-crowded times – mid-week during mid-day. This will give you some times of intimacy and they don’t require a lot of chatting or remembering – they are in the “moment” activities. Watching children can be fun but could be a source of anxiety – base your choices on what gives her a sense of peace.
2) It is very important for you to have relationships with other people who share your interests – if you are in an area that has a “Village” – join it and attend lectures, and other activities that you enjoy. You can sometimes find service clubs like Rotary that get you focused on other activities – this helps keep your mind sharp and actually can be health positive. These are activities you do solo – so you could enroll your wife in a “respite” program and use the time for your personal enrichment.
3) Support groups for caregivers are great places to get ideas from others dealing with the same challenges.
I highly recommend the following two books: “Alzheimer’s, a Love Story: One Year in My Husband’s Journey” and “A Curious Kind of Widow: Loving a Man with Advanced Alzheimer’s” – both by Ann Davidson. They are powerful, honest and emotional portrayals of living with and loving someone with this disease.
Finally, I would recommend he find a trained therapist to help him cope with the loss, grief and bereavement that so often accompanies spouses caring for someone with dementia.
What have you found helps maintain your relationship in Alzheimer’s?
D.T., I hope these suggestions will be helpful. Please let us know what you find that seems especially helpful, as I’d love to get better at pointing caregivers to useful resources.
For other readers: what have you found that helps you maintain your connection and relationship when a person has Alzheimer’s?