The Heartbreak and Hazards of Alzheimer’s Caregiving

woman touching her face, looking stressed

by Dasha Kiper for Scientific American and the Davos Alzheimer’s Collaborative

The vast majority of caregivers know full well that their spouses or parents are ill with Alzheimer’s, yet they still behave in ways they know are counterproductive: arguing, blaming, insisting on reality, and taking symptoms personally.

Reasonableness is hardly our brain’s first priority. The brain, after all, is an ultrasocial organ that has innate expectations that are often not met when caring for Alzheimer’s patients. So when someone with whom we’ve had a close relationship develops Alzheimer’s, in many cases he or she begins to retreat into a world where we cannot follow. Not only do patients often not realize they have a neurological illness, they start speaking and behaving in ways that test our own sense of reality.

It’s one of the heartbreaks of this disease. When someone we love develops cancer, patient and caregiver can commiserate, acknowledging the miseries of the disease while together experiencing, to some degree, a shared reality.  But dementia at some point precludes this possibility. This strikes us as profoundly unfair because the collective reality that we once shared (and had come to expect) is now gone.

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