ALZHEIMER’S, YOUR PARENTS AND THEIR STRESS
We’ve all been there. That moment you strike up a conversation, and the other person seems to explode in anger all over you. Maybe it’s their boss, or their spouse, or the guy that just cut them off in traffic. Whatever fired them up is history. The present is that you showed up in time for the explosion. Usually, once it’s over, there’s a moment between the two of you. A shrug acknowledging the mutual understanding that you were the undeserving recipient of emotions triggered by someone or something else.
During my Mom’s Alzheimer’s, I stumbled into this situation again and again. As my Mom’s Caregiver, Dad wisely refrained from unloading his frustration, his worry, his sadness or his stress onto Mom or onto his friends. So the first person to call (often me) to innocently check in – perhaps to ask if he had found the time to visit the Adult Day Program – would be rewarded with the explosion. When I hung up I’d be numb. And also full of questions. What the heck just happened? What did I do to deserve that? What is so terrible about visiting the Adult Day Program that it would make Dad respond like this?
In hindsight I see these calls were versions of the old familiar experience. Except, with one difference. In the Alzheimer’s setting, the satisfactory moment of mutual understanding has yet to ever come.
This week I have been poring over the results of a very recent survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association. Survey results are as mouth-watering as dark chocolate to a lifelong researcher like me. Hungrily, I dug into this study, conducted on-line this April 2017. Among the respondents were 252 people who had previously given care to someone with Alzheimer’s and 250 people currently giving care to someone with Alzheimer’s.
In the survey respondents were asked to put into words their feelings about caregiving. The mixed bag of emotions they identified has given me new insight into the emotional explosions I used to get from Dad on our calls.
Current and former Caregivers reported a complex blend of emotions. On the one hand, they report that caregiving made them feel helpful, productive, strong, supported, confident. On the other, they report that caregiving made them feel worried, sad, stressed / overwhelmed. 43% report they frequently feel guilty.
So now, let’s revisit my phone call to Dad, where I ask if he has found an opportunity to visit the Adult Day Program, and try to imagine what emotions my questions triggered in him.
Maybe the thought of this visit made Dad feel sad. Maybe he had convinced himself that Mom would always be too sharp to fit in with the others at the Adult Day program. Maybe Dad was feeling under-appreciated for all the things he has done to care for Mom already this week.. Maybe Dad felt overwhelmed by the list of household chores waiting for him today.
Stir together the emotions of sadness, under-appreciation and overwhelm, and you get a powder keg. And right then, on cue, the phone rings…and it is me.
One small, life-changing thing you can do, is to hold a picture in your mind of your Caregiver beside a “Handle with Care” sign. This way you always remember the emotions brewing in the Caregiver on the other end of the phone, and treat your Caregiver with care.