British Study Finds Many Caregivers Admit to Abusing Loved Ones who Have Alzheimer's

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Before Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she came to live with me for two weeks. Weakened by her Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, she had little energy, mostly sleeping. I took over disbursing her medications as well as preparing healthy meals three times a day. By the second week, she was better, although I had noted some extreme paranoia and memory loss.


    That Monday, Mom sat on the couch and started criticizing that I hadn’t dusted my dining room table (which had belonged to one of my great aunts and which Mom had given me). I took her snipes for awhile, but eventually my calm demeanor broke. Slamming down the doctoral homework that I was trying to do and resorting to a few choice expletives, I started screaming at Mom as I went to get a dust cloth and the furniture oil. Slamming the door to the garage behind me, I returned to dust the table, inwardly fuming. In my mind, I remember asking myself, “Doesn’t she understand how much I’m doing for her and how in the grand scheme of things, having dust on a table is a low priority.” I believe that my outburst resulted in Mom’s having an angry outburst later that evening, when she threatened to break furniture.

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    By Tuesday morning, I was still shaken by my outburst (since I tend to be even-keeled and Mom and I had been best friends throughout my life) as well as its aftermath. But that 2005 outburst helps me to understand a British study just released that reports that more than half of family members who care for a loved one with dementia have reported that they have behaved abusively toward their relative. The report, published in the Jan. 23 online issue of BMJ, found that although physical abuse was rare, more than 50 percent of those surveyed reported some abusive behavior toward the relative. In addition, 33 percent of caregivers reported “significant” abusive behavior.


     Study author Dr. Claudia Cooper of the Medical Research Council found that 26 percent reported that the abuse consisted of screaming or yelling at the loved one who has dementia. Insults or swearing accounted for 18 percent of reports, while 4.4 percent of caregivers reported threatened placing the relative in a nursing home. Comparable studies have not been conducted in the United States, so the incidence of such abuse is not known.


    I still regret what happened on that Monday since it was so uncharacteristic of how I normally behave. However, I used that incident to realize that (1) something was wrong with Mom; and (2) to step back and analyze my own behavior and stress level so as to not “step” on the emotional landmines that Mom’s Alzheimer’s inadvertently set for me. I’d encourage all caregivers who are living on a daily basis with a loved one with Alzheimer’s to step back and think through their responses to their loved ones. Find help, whether through counseling or placing your loved one in an Adult Day Care for a time period so you can get necessary “me” time. Maintaining your sanity, stress level and equilibrium will be important if you plan to care for a loved one for a prolonged period of time.


Published On: January 26, 2009