When to Eavesdrop and Intervene in the Business of a Loved One with Alzheimer's

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • When a loved one is suffering from Alzheimer’s, when is it appropriate to eavesdrop on conversations? That’s a hard one decision to make. I never was placed in this situation, but know that my mother (who became increasingly paranoid as her memory failed) would have had a traumatic outburst if she caught us listening in on her conversations. Yet the approach that a caregiver takes both to learning what’s going on and then dealing with the situation can defuse what could be an embarrassing (and potentially hazardous) situation.

                    Here’s a case in point.  Several years ago, I happened to meet a woman who I’ll call Laura whose new husband, Brett, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s early in their marriage. Laura shared with me that Brett used to be a retired officer who had worked in a high-level military position. After Sept. 11 (which happened after his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease), Brett was determined to return to duty and serve his country. He began to have a series of phone calls with his former colleagues to that effect. Not suspecting Brett’s diagnosis, the military officers began to set the wheels in motion for reappointment.

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    And that’s when Laura, who had been quietly monitoring her husband’s phone calls, stepped in. One day when she was in different room from Brett, the phone rang and she was able to answer. Laura explained her husband’s diagnosis to the military officer, noting that her husband was no longer able to serve. The officer thanked her for the information and then hung up.

    The next task Laura faced was breaking the news to Brett that he wouldn’t be returning to the military in order to serve his country. And this is where Laura’s creativity came into play. She told Brett that his former military colleague had called, but then Laura figured out how to cushion the emotional blow when telling her husband that she had stopped the reappointment process. She reported she had told the officer that she didn’t want Brett to rejoin the military because, “I’m a newlywed.  Brett’s given time to our country, and now it’s my time. I want Brett to spend time with me.” Brett, duly flattered and believing Laura’s explanation, let the matter drop.

    This story provides a good lesson on when to eavesdrop and when to step in. I’ve come to believe that staying abreast of what’s going on in the life of a loved one with Alzheimer’s is critical, considering the times we’re in. For instance, it can be too easy for a con artist to gain the loved one’s trust in order to manipulate him or her for shady purposes.

    But staying abreast -- whether through eavesdropping, questioning, or setting up systems (such as opening all mail) – doesn’t mean you have to always take action on what you learn. I’d suggest that you follow Laura’s lead and only step in when there’s a threat to the loved one with Alzheimer’s or to the person or organization that is being contacted. By not appearing to be nosing around in the loved one’s business is important. However, it’s equally important to be knowledgeable about what’s going on and ready to take action (and to tell the loved one about your action, sometimes in a creative way such as Laura did). By doing so, you can make sure that you create a safe environment.


Published On: July 31, 2009