What to do when dementia strikes your family – Faith & You by Terry Pluto
CLEVELAND, Ohio – I received this email from Emily (not her real name), who read my recent column on adult children caring for elderly parents:
“I haven’t really had that experience of lovingly caring for my mother in old age. She was a great mom. But with Alzheimer’s disease, she became hateful and violent. We five siblings couldn’t take care of her – especially after she left big bruises on my sister. We decided to place her in a care facility. That day she punched me in the jaw and clawed my brother’s face – among other things less easy to mention.
“The psychologist at the health center suggested that the two of us visit him for our safety. It lasted five years. We brothers and sisters were totally in agreement on things and (in pairs) took care of the necessary business – all while being told how horrible people we were.
I have heard stories like this from other friends. Joe Tait’s wife has never been violent with him. But the former Cavs broadcaster realized that over the past few years, Jeannie Tait had no idea who the man who visited him daily and fed his dinner.
“I know she’s still out there somewhere,” Tait told me. “But she also seems so far away.”
Tait died on March 10 at the age of 83. Jean Tait is still alive and in a memory care facility.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
“These are such difficult situations and there are no easy answers,” said Father Bob Stec of St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Brunswick.
Stec recently spoke to a woman whose husband suffered from severe dementia.
For the five years before her death, “she joked that she hated him… but there was some truth to that feeling.”
Stec said he hears more stories like these as dementia and Alzheimer’s are more and more common.
“You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s not the person, it’s the disease,” he said. “You are trying to keep in mind who you love, not how that person is acting now.”
It becomes a test of our love and obedience. Stec said the woman’s husband later suffered a stroke and ended up in a hospice. She went to see him every day until his death.
“We take care of the person the best we can,” he said. “It may mean having to place the person in an institution. But we can visit, stay engaged. Treat them as we would like to be treated. This is what Jesus taught.
HOW TO LISTEN
But as Emily found out, others will question your decisions. Often they have strong opinions, but they are unwilling to spend the time providing care and dealing with emotional trauma.
It can be very painful for people like Emily and her family, who were doing their best under terrible circumstances.
“This is when you need to take your faith and your love off the shelf,” said Reverend Robin Hedgeman of Bethany Christian Church in Cleveland. “It’s not just something to watch or discuss, it’s something we have to do and show off.”
Hedgeman said people like Emily need our patience and love. We are not here to fix the situation, unless they ask for advice.
“Be present in the moment,” she said. “Realize that there will probably be repetitions. Our reaction may be to want to move away quickly, to change the subject. But stay with them.
We can show the love of God by validating their feelings of frustration, their hurt. People who are closely related to a loved one who is in pain sometimes seem unable to talk about much else.
Or they may not want to talk about it at all.
“Take your clues from them,” Hedgeman said. “It’s a way of putting faith into action.”
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