The next item on our list of the hardest things for Alzheimer’s caregivers to deal with: mood swings.
Though in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s there are good days and difficult days, as the disease progresses, the good times may shorten to hours. In one day, those with Alzheimer’s may experience occasions when their minds function well, interrupted by periods when they’re ambushed by symptoms like confusion, anxiety, or inability to find words.
Our loved ones feel the shocks again and again: being told their questions have been asked and answered many times already; finding themselves unable to balance a checkbook or follow a recipe; hesitating with a telephone or garage opener in their hands because the device doesn’t look familiar any more.
Alzheimer’s doesn’t fire a warning shot. It just attacks.
It’s no wonder, then, that our loved ones’ moods fluctuate, even in the earliest stages. The fear aroused by the onslaught of symptoms, the relief when symptoms go away—as sensitive as caregivers are to those feelings, the people we care for are immensely more so.
So…how to help them through mood swings? Here are four strategies.
1. Talk to them.
Early in the disease, our loved ones can tell us, more or less, how they’re feeling and why. Whether they choose to or not is a separate question. But even if they don’t, I believe it helps to talk to them. And the best help we can give them is truth. Positive, affirming truth—it will help your loved one and you, too. You may or may not want to talk specifically about Alzheimer’s, but you surely can reassure them with matter-of-fact statements like:
• Yes, you get confused but I’m here to help you.
• I want to be here; I want to help you.
• You aren’t alone. We’re a team.
• We’ll be fine.
I found my mother’s reactions to those assurances usually matched the tone I used when I spoke. If my voice conveyed sadness or fear about the situation, I think she felt her fear or anger being validated. But if I spoke simply, and said the words as if they had always been the facts of our relationship, she caught my calm.
2. Agree with them.
It’s never beneficial to argue with someone who has Alzheimer’s. Our words won’t make our loved ones disbelieve their reality: they are certain the bath water is too hot, sure the dog ran away, positive someone stole the car. Instead of telling them they’re wrong, we do better to agree with them.
3. Demonstrate to them, in the most visible way possible, that we accept their reality. In other words, whether it’s perceived or real, fix the problem.
“Well, Mom, no wonder you’re upset. Let me test this water again/see what I can do about Charley-Dog/go check on the car.” Then do it. Stick your hand in the water and turn on the cold tap, even if only for a second. Go find the dog; bring him into the room, if necessary. Go outside to check on the car. When you return, you can say the absolute truth: things are okay.
4. Use distractions to capture their attention and direct it elsewhere.
As the disease progresses, the causes of change in mood won’t be as clear or reasonable. Distractions—maybe a new task, caring for a pet, food, a walk—may help to ease our loved ones away from the extremes of negative moods. Use your imagination. You’re the best judge of what might calm frayed emotions or attract your loved one’s attention sufficiently to dispel bad feelings.
Two important notes:
• If you don’t already have a pet at the onset of Alzheimer’s, this may not be a good time to get one. Things our loved ones perceive as new or different can cause them even more anxiety.
• It’s important to keep the doctor aware of changes in mood and emotions. Depression is not uncommon in older adults, and it can add immeasurably to the challenges of Alzheimer’s. Moreover, depression can often be treated, giving you and your loved one better days and more of them.
If we were talking about a textbook patient, perhaps we could more readily think of ways to calm the fear or defuse the frustration. But these are people we know and love. Their pain and fear become ours, and sometimes we find ourselves in the swing next to them, flying forward with optimism, then backward to despair.
And of course we must bear in mind that what worked last time may not work this time. But, with the resilience of a caregiver, right after we accept that fact, we must insist that it just might work next time.
Resilience. As dementia steals it from those we care for, we must stockpile it. We have to develop more and more of it, enough to fight the monster and keep our loved ones living well the life they have.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me… (Ps. 138:7 NKJ).
Lord, we know You are always here. Help us to be aware, not only of Your presence, but of Your very real assistance as we fight for the ones we love. May we be sensitive to Your promptings, knowing that You are able to keep them safe, to keep them living in the best ways possible, in spite of the cruelties of Alzheimer’s.