1 Important Thing to Overcome When Someone You Love Has Alzheimer’s

Note: A longer version of this article will appear in the forthcoming book, Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers, by Marie Marley, PhD, and Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN.

Denial May Deprive You of Joy

Alexandru, a close relative of my life partner, Ed, was visiting from out of town. One evening they had a long talk about a wide range of topics – most of which concerned Alexandru’s professional issues. The next day Ed had no memory of the visit, let alone what they had discussed.

[Read: Still Granddad: Seeing My Grandfather’s True Soul Through Alzheimer’s Disease]

I had been telling Alexandru for months that Ed had Alzheimer’s, but he never believed me. He thought Ed’s memory problems were just due to normal aging. In short, he was in a state of deep denial.

Alexandru was distressed. In fact he spent all the rest of his time with Ed trying to refresh his memory of their talk. When it didn’t work, he left for the airport to go home, upset and distraught. Feeling like a failure. Feeling unloved.

[Read from Maria Shriver: I Emailed Jeb Bush About Fighting Alzheimer’s… And He Responded]

What Alexandru didn’t realize was that Ed would never remember that visit. It would have made more sense to spend their remaining time together discussing something else or experiencing their relationship in some other way. They could have had a pleasant – maybe even joyous – visit.

All too often loved ones of people with Alzheimer’s are in denial. Hence they spend their time trying to get the person to ‘act normal.’ Trying to get them to remember and do things they will never be able to remember or do. This only leads to anger and frustration for the visitor and often for the person with Alzheimer’s as well.

[Read: Denial Is a Disease We Must Fight When Caregiving]

It would be so much better to look for ways to have a relationship and interact at the level of their loved one rather than try to drag that person into our world. Because they can’t function in our world. We can only reach them and enjoy them in their world – at their level. To enjoy them in ‘Alzheimer’s world,’ as Bob DeMarco, founder of the Alzheimer’s Reading Room, calls it.

One problem is that people in denial rarely know they’re in denial. They believe the person can be normal and remember things if they just try hard enough to make them remember. Hence, it’s difficult for them to change the way they approach their relationship and spending time with their loved one.

[Read: A Primer for Secondary Caregivers]

This is a serious problem, the solution to which is quite difficult. If you are interacting with a friend of yours who doesn’t have Alzheimer’s but who’s forgotten something important, the natural thing to do is to try to jog their memory. Chances are they will remember. This is ‘normal.’

If you try the same thing with a person who has Alzheimer’s you will inevitably be disappointed. Your efforts will fail. You will miss out on the joy you might have if you accept the memory loss and find some other way to connect.

[Read: The Value of Relationships in Alzheimer’s Disease]

If you feel that you’re in denial, try interacting in some way that focuses on the present moment rather than one that involves the person’s memory. See how that works. You may be pleasantly surprised.

The First Step: Make Peace With Alzheimer’s and Learn to Love Again

It’s one thing to finally overcome denial and realize someone close to you has Alzheimer’s. It’s a completely different thing to accept that fact. After what can be months or even years of being in denial, most people finally realize Alzheimer’s has struck.

[Read: Activities People Can Still Enjoy During Every Stage of Alzheimer’s]

But many people never really come to accept the situation. Some caregivers never come to terms with it. Some never become at peace with the diagnosis and all that it means. They know in their brains that their loved one will never get better, but as hard as they try they can’t accept this truth it in their hearts.

We can get caught up in a trap. The bold truth is so painful we can push it to the back of our minds. The situation may be so hurtful we respond by refusing to think about it. We may stick our heads in the sand and pretend nothing really serious is wrong.

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest “I’ve Been Thinking” essay]

In order to come to terms with Alzheimer’s in a loved one we must first let go of the expectation of finding the previous person, and we must embrace the new one – just as he or she is in the present. Since that person will continue changing as time goes by, we must constantly let go of the old one and accept the new one. Each day brings the opportunity to experience new life with your loved one.

We must fall in love again with the person as he or she is in the present and let go of the person we used to love. That person is never coming back. This is what it means to accept and make peace with Alzheimer’s in a person you dearly love. Learn to let go and learn to love again. You will give your loved one, and yourself, a great gift in the process.

{Image credit: Alex Wigan, Unsplash}


About the Author

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Marie Marley is co-author of Finding Joy in Alzheimer's: New Hope for Caregivers and author of the award-winning book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy. She also hosts her own blog and publishes a twice-monthly newsletter dealing for people caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. The newsletter and blog can be accessed through her website (ComeBackEarlyToday.com), which contains a wealth of helpful information for Alzheimer’s caregivers. Marie is the author of hundreds of articles on Alzheimer’s caregiving and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and the Alzheimer’s Reading Room.

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