How to Survive Caring for Aging Parents

For eleven years I pleaded with my elderly father to allow a caregiver to help him with my ailing mother, but he always insisted on taking care of her himself. Every caregiver I hired soon sighed in exasperation, “Jacqueline, I just can’t work with your father. His temper is impossible and he’s not going to accept help until he’s on his knees himself.”

When my father’s inability to continue to care for my mother nearly resulted in her death, I stepped in despite his loud protests. It was so heart-breaking, as one minute he’d be my loving father and then some trivial little thing would set him off and he’d call me horrible names and throw me out of the house. I took him to several doctors and even a psychiatrist, but it was astonishing that he could act completely normal when he needed to.

Finally, I stumbled upon a neurologist who specialized in dementia. He put my parents through a battery of blood, neurological, and memory tests and P.E.T. scans. After ruling out numerous reversible forms of dementia, such as a B-12 or thyroid deficiency, and evaluating their medications, he shocked me with the diagnosis of Stage One Alzheimer’s in both of my parents. Amazingly, all their other doctors missed this entirely.

What I’d been dealing with was the beginning of Alzheimer’s, which starts very intermittently and appears to come and go. I didn’t understand that my father was addicted and trapped in his own deeply engrained bad behavior of a lifetime of screaming and yelling to get his way, and that it was coming out in inconsistent spurts of over-the-top irrationality. I also didn’t understand that “demented” does not mean “dumb” (a concept not widely appreciated), and that he was still socially adjusted enough never to show his “Mr. Hyde” side to anyone outside the family. Conversely, my mother was as sweet and lovely as she’d always been.

Alzheimer’s makes up sixty to eighty percent of all dementias and there’s no stopping the progression nor is there yet a cure. However, if identified early, there are four FDA approved medications (more in clinical trials), that in most patients can mask dementia symptoms and keep them in the early independent stage longer.

Once my parents were properly treated for the Alzheimer’s, as well as the depression which is often present in dementia patients, and my father’s aggression was treated, I was able to optimize fluids and nutrition with much less resistance. I was also able to manage the rollercoaster of challenging behaviors. Instead of logic and reason, I learned to use distraction and redirection. I also capitalized on their long-term memories and instead of arguing with facts, I learned to live in their realities of the moment. I also learned to just go with the flow and let hurtful comments roll off. Most importantly, I was able to get my father to accept two wonderful live-in caregivers. Then finally, with the tremendous benefit of Adult Day Health Care five days a week for my parents and a support group for me, everything started to fall into place.

Alzheimer’s disease afflicts more than 5.4 million Americans, but millions go undiagnosed for many years because early warning signs are chalked up to stress and a “normal” part of aging. Since one in six women and one in eleven men are afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease by age 65, and nearly half by age 85, healthcare professionals of every specialty should know the ten warning signs (see and educate their patients so they can save time, money, and a fortune in Kleenex!

Adapted from Elder Rage or, Take My Father…Please!: How To Survive Caring For Aging Parents by Jacqueline Marcell