Relationship and Emotional Changes for Family Members of Alzheimer’s Patients

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August 2, 2007 at 2:07 pm  •  Posted in Alzheimers Disease/Dementia by  •  0 Comments

By Sherry Katz, MSW, LCSW

Introduction
Feelings of Anxiety and Frustration
The Unpredictable Nature of Relationships
How Social Workers Can Help

 

Introduction

When someone has Alzheimer’s disease, everyone in the family is affected, not just the patient. Taking the extra time to respectfully listen to a patient repeat themselves, provide the extra measures so that the patient’s living environment is safe, and increasingly manage the patient’s household and financial affairs, all require effort and energy from family members.

In addition to these very necessary practical aspects, Alzheimer’s disease introduces major change in the relationships between patient and family members. When the patient cannot remember what they just said five minutes ago, it is not simply information being lost, it is the ability to share an experience which is affected. Communication requires memory, and diminished memory means diminished opportunity to understand and communicate with one another as people.

Feelings of Anxiety and Frustration

Family members will naturally feel some degree of upset when first becoming aware that their family member, who has Alzheimer’s disease, cannot clearly express feelings in the same way as before the onset of the disease. Adding to the upset is confusion; although Alzheimer’s patient’s cognitive losses are steady, they are also irregular. There are good days on which the patient converses in a relatively clear manner and bad days, on which almost all conversation is cloudy.

When the phase of emotional and relationship breakdown starts to occur, it can be useful for family members of the patient to speak with a social worker who specializes in either family or older adult matters. It is normal for family members to feel mixed emotions while adjusting to how limited the relationship with the patient is becoming. While once there were predictable routines and common understanding, now there is unpredictability and uncertainty.

This interpersonal context raises many strong negative feelings, such as anxiety and frustration. Social workers are trained to listen, understand and redirect, and suggest new ways for an individual to approach relationship difficulties. Sometimes people feel angry with themselves for expecting too much from the patient, others feel angry with the patient, for example. Talking over these extremes can help family members bring their own inner turmoil to a more balanced perspective.

The Unpredictable Nature of Relationships

Relationships can get better or worse with Alzheimer’s. It is largely unpredictable which direction a relationship will turn. It is possible, if the patient has always held a grudge or is highly critical, and now can’t remember against whom or for what, family may find an easier time getting along with that person.

Alzheimer’s disease eventually takes over the patient’s ability to verbally communicate altogether. It is a difficult stage in the relationship between patient and family member. During this phase, emotions play a greater role in communication since it is the only way of communicating.

How Social Workers Can Help

Once again, clinical social workers are expert in finding new and different ways of finding ways for people to have the best possible relationship with one another, given the strengths and limitations of the people involved with one another.

“Where there is a will”,…there could be a way, and social workers increase your chances of finding what that means, for the patient family member of a person who has Alzheimer’s disease.

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