The Alzheimer’s Caregiver: What’s Really Important

A few years ago, I was a member of a committee for which a friend of mine was the Chair.  As so often happens, the members of the committee, myself included, strayed from the original topic and began arguing over the trivialities.

My friend listened to us argue for a few minutes, but then interrupted the committee members.  “A few years ago, I learned what was really important and what was not, and this, my friends, is not important.”

Immediately, there was silence.  The event my friend alluded to was the death of his daughter in a car accident. Everyone refocused their attention on the real issue, rather than the extraneous ones about which we were arguing.

There are those events or times in your life which refocus your attention on what really matters.

Often with caregiving, especially with a chronic illness like Alzheimer’s, we get lost in the extraneous issues.  Family members, all under stress, have different views on how best to care for the loved one or how best to handle his or her affairs.

Sometimes, self-interest and greed sneak in, but more often, there are several family members all seeking the person’s best interest, but their views and opinions are colored by grief, guilt, fear, exhaustion, unresolved issues, sibling rivalries, etc.

I’ve watched families torn apart by these arguments, and in some cases, the rifts never are repaired.

The families I’ve known who ended up in these messes didn’t wake up one morning and decide to have a relationship-ending argument.  It usually is the culmination of issues which have been brewing under the surface for some time, never directly addressed.

The healthiest thing to do is to deal with things directly before they get to that point.  If there are relationship issues, talk about them.  If necessary, seek help from a licensed family therapist.

If money or the disposition of the estate is the issue, enlist the aid of an elder law attorney.  In larger cities and in law schools around the country, the federal government funds elder law clinics which offer services free of charge to seniors.  You can contact your state bar association to get information about a clinic in your area.

One of the most common problems in families caring for people with Alzheimer’s is their constant desire to correct the Alzheimer’s patient.  My advice is always this:  Before you argue, ask yourself if it matters. Usually it doesn’t.

My advice to families arguing about care issues or estate issues is the same.  Before you speak, ask yourself if it really matters.

I also would add this:  Ask yourself if you are too angry to speak about it right now, if you might say something you could regret later.  If so, take some time to cool your temper.

It is much easier to step away from an argument or keep an argument from escalating, than to attempt to mend un-mendable fences later.

Our two families have had their fair share of disagreements over caregiving.  Given our 8 family members who have had Alzheimer’s or some other type of dementia, it would impossible to have had smooth sailing throughout those years.

However, I have found that forgiveness, understanding, compromise and humility have proven to be of much more use than winning an argument or being “right.”

In the end, family is the most valuable thing any of us possess.  Love is what motivates family caregivers to devote years of their lives to this extraordinary service.

Let love be your aim.  When you focus on love, lesser issues fall into their proper place.

September is World Alzheimer’s Month. Across the globe, 35 million people and their families are affected by dementia. It’s going to take all of us to change these numbers. Visit the Alzheimer’s Association for three easy ways you can get involved and help end Alzheimer’s.

Image credit: Seanwes

About the Author

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Between the two of them, Ellen Woodward Potts and her husband, neurologist Dr. Daniel Potts, helped care for eight family members (four grandparents, three great aunts and Daniel’s father) with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Their book, A Pocket Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver, summarizes all the things they wish they and their families had known as they traveled their caregiving journey. When not writing and speaking about Alzheimer’s disease, Ellen serves as Executive Director for Habitat for Humanity of Tuscaloosa, and teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama Honors College. She and Daniel live in Tuscaloosa with their two daughters, Julie and Maria, and their miniature dachshund, Heidi.

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