According to the Alzheimer’s Society over 850,000 people in the UK are living with dementia. The impact of dementia on sufferers and their carers is deeply upsetting. In particular the effect on their relationship is a very emotionally and mentally painful feature of this illness.
The symptoms of dementia and the inevitable loss of the sufferers’ personality can push relationships to breaking point.
Losing the person you love to dementia
Typical symptoms can include impaired decision-making and problem solving. Meaning previously simple tasks like cooking a meal or going to buy groceries become very difficult. A dementia sufferer’s personality can change quite rapidly. Thus individuals who were once happy and relatively care-free can become easily frustrated, angry, anxious or depressed as a consequence of the illness.
Sufferers can in some cases experience delusions which result in them falsely accusing loved ones of stealing. The belief that their nearest and dearest are taking money, clothes or family heirlooms is a common symptom associated with certain kinds of dementia.
Can relationships survive dementia?
Common to all of these is the pressure it places upon relationships. Spouses, children and grand-children often take on responsibility as a primary carer.
Cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and the like tend to fall solely on the shoulders of the carer. Mood changes, accusations of theft and worsening memory take an emotional toll on both the sufferer and carer. The deterioration of the relationship can be as painful for the carer as watching a loved one they once knew intimately, slowly drift away.
Dementia effects relationships within the whole family
But it is not only the relationship between carer and dementia sufferer that can be compromised. Relationships between the carer and their own partner, children and wider family can also be damaged. Increasing amounts of time spent caring for an elderly relative leaves little time to maintain a marriage or family relationship. The stress of caring can also easily spill over in to those relationships.
Dementia can appear like a life sentence for carers. The illness forces us to watch a loved one disappear. Meanwhile the pressure and responsibilities upon our own shoulders increase. There are thankfully ways to help ease the burden and make the best of your associated relationships.
Hurtful comments are not deliberate
It is important to understand that your loved one cannot control this process. Changes in mood, delusions and at times nasty and hurtful comments are not of their choosing. Dementia is the result of diseases and conditions that damage brain cells. The hurtful words may come from the mouth of your loved one but they are not deliberate.
Focus on positives and not dementia
Focusing on the positives can provide a break from the negativity that often surrounds dementia. Place your attention upon the things your loved one can still do as opposed to the things they cannot do. As a child grows we celebrate what they can do and almost entirely ignore what they are yet to learn. A similar approach can be beneficial when dealing with dementia.
Similarly, pay close attention to moments of positivity during your time with them. For example a kind word, smile or a time of laughter are the moments to take away from each visit. Not the repetitive conversations or forgetfulness.
Make time to deal with your own emotions
As a carer it is important to confront rather than ignore the feelings and emotions you are experiencing. Talking about your situation and how it is impacting upon you can help deal with difficult emotions.
Share your situation with other family members or friends. Join support groups and meet with fellow carers. Try your best not to bottle up how you are feeling.
At times carers may experience feelings of anger and resentment towards their loved one. Admitting having such feelings to a family member for example can create other emotions of shame and guilt.
When talking to family is not enough
Those feelings are completely natural under the difficult circumstances of dementia. But talking about them to family members can sometimes be impossible. Counselling can provide a safe place where you can talk freely and openly about how you feel.
A counsellor has no emotional ties to the situation which allows them to be impartial and fair. Unlike a family member who is emotionally involved in the situation, a counsellor is completely removed from it.
Look after yourself as well as your loved one
Finally it is important to look after yourself. Carers can feel duty-bound to be on call 24/7. Often that creates intense feelings of guilt at taking a day off or spending time doing something purely for themselves.
In reality not taking time out can lead to carers being emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted, consequently unable to look after their loved one.
Dementia is a tragic illness but it need not be the case that carers have to suffer alone and in silence. Organisations like Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer Scotland, Dementia UK and Age Concern offer help, support and advice for carers. Counselling charities like The Spark can also help address the complicated relationship issues that emerge when dealing with dementia.
Are you a carer looking after a loved one with dementia? Could you benefit from talking to a counsellor about your relationship to talk to someone?
Life can be challenging at times. And speaking to a loved one or friend sometimes is not enough to help overcome those challenges. Speaking to a counsellor can help you understand the problems you face and decide how to move forward positively.