Alzheimer's Caregivers: Finding a Balance Between Caring for a Loved One and Yourself
How much does devotion to your loved one with dementia hamper your ability to build new relationships and pursue new personal interests?
Is it appropriate to spend time thinking about and planning for your future when caregiving is no longer part of your life?
These topics emerged as my friend Anna and I continued to discuss the movie, "Away from Me." In the movie, the husband, Grant, finds his life is thrown off kilter when Fiona, his wife who is played by Julie Christie, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's and then determines that it's time for her to move to a retirement community.
After the retirement community's mandated 30-day separation to allow Fiona to adjust, Grant returns to the retirement community to find that his wife no longer knows him - and has developed a friendship with a male resident, Aubrey.
Each day, Grant returns to the retirement community and tries to reingratiate himself to Fiona; her response, stated with a blank expression, is, "You sure are persistent." It's heartbreaking to watch Grant sit on the couch watching his beloved Fiona tenderly help Aubrey play cards or eat a meal across the room.
Eventually, Aubrey leaves the retirement community, and Fiona's mental capacity takes a turn for the worse due to her mourning. To try to ease Fiona's pain and slow her downward spiral, Grant shows up at Aubrey's home and proceeds to strike up a friendship with Aubrey's wife, Marian, in an attempt to try to have her bring Aubrey back to the retirement community for a visit to Fiona.
Anna and I found plenty of fodder in Grant's decision to befriend Marian, but to avoid providing any spoilers for those who haven't seen the movie, I won't go into some of our discussions. However, one issue that I mentioned to Anna was that I believe it was OK for Grant to start to reach out to other people in order to build a life beyond Fiona.
Anna asked me to explain more about why I took this stand. I mentioned that Grant appeared to be coming on a daily basis to see Fiona, therefore showing his devotion to her. That's admirable, but I also stressed that he had to come to terms that his own life had to go on, even though his wife's life was taking a different path due to her mental decline. He could (and should) be supportive of her, but he also had to find ways to build his own life "away from her."
This situation emerged for my own family recently. My father stopped by a restaurant recently to get "take out" dinner for us. Since our dinners weren't ready, he struck up a conversation with a woman who was eating dinner alone at the bar (which is where the restaurant had people pick-up their "to go" dinners). Over the next 5-10 minutes, Dad did more socializing than he had in a long time.
When I joined Dad at his apartment for dinner, he told me about the conversation with this woman. "I almost asked her if she would be willing to have dinner with me sometime," he said. "Would that have been bad?" I immediately told him that I wished he had asked her to join him for dinner some time in the near future. I found that his visit was heartening because since he moved to this area in fall 2006, he hasn't made a real effort to build new relationships with people in this area beyond visiting Mom at the nursing home and daily phone calls to me.
I know that he isn't looking for a romantic attachment at this point; instead, I believe he needs companionship. A good conversation and a good laugh can ease the burden of caregiving, which, unfortunately, is going to only get more painful in the next year or so as Mom's lungs weaken.
So I suggest that caregivers - like Grant in the movie and my dad in real life - need to remain devoted to their loved one. But they also need to feel supported by others in trying to build new avenues - whether friendships or outside interests -- so that their own lives can go on once their loved one moves irrevocably away from them.