You may experience potentially sensitive situations when caring for aging parents who have Alzheimer’s or dementia. The disease impacts brain function and changes how a person acts and communicates. That’s a challenge for adult children who may be taking care of Mom or Dad.
“We can’t stop the changes in personality from happening, but we can learn how to cope,” says Mary Fogarty, RN, Director of Nursing at United Hebrew of New Rochelle, which provides an array of supportive care services, including memory care, to Westchester’s seniors. Here, she shares answers to questions about caregiving that you may be afraid (or too embarrassed) to ask.
1. My loved one has frequent “accidents” and doesn’t always make it to the bathroom on time. How can I prevent this from happening?
Dementia affects the mind’s processing skills, so one who has Alzheimer’s may not feel the urge to visit the bathroom until it’s too late. When you are the caregiver, take your parent to the bathroom on a schedule: after waking up, after meals, or every few hours. If an accident occurs, remain calm, and help clean up. Don’t make your parent feel bad. If you have to go out on errands, which disrupt your routine, you may want to ask if your parent would consider adult incontinence products, which may offer short-term protection.
2. What should I do if my loved one engages in sexually inappropriate behavior?
Alzheimer’s and dementia can cause inappropriate behavior, such as fondling or exposing private parts to people other than their partners. First, remain calm. Gently tell your loved one that the behavior is unsuitable. Distract and redirect if possible. Be matter-of-fact without shaming. Ask questions; there may be other reasons for acting this way, such as having to use the bathroom, or being bored. Find an activity to engage your loved one, such as a puzzle or art activity. If the behavior persists, you may want to schedule a doctor’s visit.
3. My parent thinks people are “out to get him” and is often suspicious of others. How can I reassure him?
You can provide comfort by being relaxed, loving, and speaking about the present moment. For example, describe how your parent is safe at home with people who love him or her. Try soothing activities, such as listening to music, looking at photographs, going for a walk, or taking a nap. If the paranoia or hallucinations become extreme, you should discuss with your parent’s doctor.
4. My loved one is easily agitated. How should I handle this?
Most of the time, the agitation is for a reason. Once you find out what that is, the behavior may stop. Does your loved one need to use the bathroom? Is he or she in pain? Experiencing discomfort or boredom? Is the room too loud? When caregiving, find the root cause, and change the situation.
5. It’s so hard to know what my loved one needs. How can I improve our communication?
Just keep trying. It takes practice. When you need to give information, ask if your loved one can hear you. Make eye contact. If you are busy with other responsibilities, offer choices so your parent feels he or she has some control over the activities. For example: “I have to make dinner now. Would you like to listen to music, read the newspaper, or do a puzzle?” Keep it simple; ask one question at a time. But if the going gets rough, talk to others who are experiencing the same thing. Join a support group at United Hebrew or elsewhere. Consider respite care. Sometimes you need to take a timeout for yourself.