How I’m Caregiving Differently the Second Time Around

My mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis was a surprise. With my mother-in-law, I’m prepared.

Posted in , Aug 2, 2019

Woman holding hands

As the daughter of a mother with Alzheimer’s, I have often relied on my mother-in-law, Clara, to fill the maternal role that my mom was incapable of. Mothers-in-law are often accused of treating their daughters-in-law as though they aren’t quite good enough for their sons. But Clara has always treated me with love and respect, often referring to me as the daughter she never had.

My mother’s Alzheimer’s has been progressing for many years. Although our family observed changes in Mom’s personality and behavior for years, she wasn’t officially diagnosed until after she reached stage four, which is defined as the “moderate decline” stage.

Recently, I’ve noticed some changes in Clara’s behavior. Just like my mom did in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s, Clara has been experiencing paranoid delusions and just like my mother’s delusions, they always involve neighbors or family members. Also, like my mother, Clara complains that things around her house are disappearing and concludes that they have been stolen by others rather than hidden by herself.

When my mom first exhibited these symptoms, I had no idea they foreshadowed a later diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. This time around I was more prepared for what was to come. Here are four things I learned from caring for my mother that are helping me to provide better care for Clara.

1. Empathize instead of correct

I knew there was no point in trying to explain to Clara that her delusions were not real, as this would only frustrate her and make her feel isolated and misunderstood. I learned from my time with Mom that the best response is, “That must be upsetting to hear” or “I’m sorry this is happening to you.” 

2. Redirect mail

At stage four of Alzheimer’s my mother had difficulty managing her finances. She was unable to distinguish junk mail from bills and important documents and would spend unnecessary hours fretting over how to handle each paper. Fortunately she chose me to handle her finances and allowed her mail to be permanently forwarded to my address.

Clara has reached that point as well, confiding to my husband and me that she frequently wakes up at night to anxiously rummage through the piles of mail, worried that she has overlooked something important. Again we were fortunate that Clara chose my husband, Don, to handle her finances and her mail. It has greatly reduced her anxiety. He handles the important stuff, and then delivers her ‘fun’ mail (such as Guidepost Magazine!) when we visit.

3. Utilize technology

Several weeks ago, Clara expressed frustration that she never knew the day of the week. Her trash is picked up on Mondays and her friend comes on Thursdays for their weekly outing, but she wakes up every morning clueless as to how to prepare for the day. Aha!  Many years ago we bought Mom a special digital clock that not only tells the time and date, but also clearly states the day of the week and whether it is morning, afternoon or evening. The clock is now well beyond Mom’s comprehension and so we display it where Clara can easily see it from her favorite recliner. Problem solved! 

4. Set up a family whiteboard

Clara sometimes struggles in remembering names, phone numbers and relationships. Several years ago, we bought Mom a dry erase board and listed the names of my sisters and me, followed by the word “daughter” because the concept of how we were related was becoming confusing. Below each name we wrote both our work and cell phone numbers, then hung the board next to her telephone. This was also handy information in the event that a visitor needed to contact us. This worked pretty well for Mom during stage four, so we have updated the information with Clara’s family and friends and passed the board on to her.

This serves a dual purpose. Clara receives quite a few scam phone calls, attempting to sell her items that she doesn’t need or trying to get her credit card information. With caller ID, she can compare the phone number to the list on her dry erase board, and if that phone number isn’t on the board, she knows not to answer it.

Once Mom’s Alzheimer’s passed stage four, the dry erase board was no longer helpful. She needed something easier to use, so upon further research we found a phone that replaces the numbers on the dial with photographs. Mom could simply press the photo of the person she wants to call and it would dial the number. Clara isn’t at that point yet, and hopefully will stay at stage four for many years, but it’s good to know that option is available if needed.

We never thought we would be going through this process again, but at least we are better prepared. We are patient with Clara’s delusions, rather than trying to prove they aren’t real. We are aware that gadgets to help Clara function independently are just a Google search away. Clara has expressed to us quite forcefully that she intends to live out her remaining years in her home with Sassy, her dog. All we can do is respect her wishes and help her achieve that. The rest is in God’s hands.

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