When Alzheimer's Moves In

Christine Kennard Health Pro
  • My good friend recently offloaded her feelings. It was about her mother and the unexpected family strains that have developed as a result of caring for her. My friends' mother (let's call her Janet) used to lead a full and independent life. Janet survived the death of her husband, was an active member of a Bridge club and had a good social life. After a series of small strokes, subsequent memory problems, and a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, events finally caught up with her to the point where, in her eightieth year, she is unable to cope alone.


    After some discussion the family helped Janet put her house up for sale. A slow housing market means that 3 months later Janet's property is still for sale. The solution seemed obvious. Janet can live for a month at a time between her two daughters, until the house sells. Once the house sells, Janet wants to buy into an assisted living apartment. No problem!

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    Well, no problem until the teenage son (let's call him Mark) was factored in. The moment Janet moved in, it became clear that things were not going to be easy. Janet's mental state means she is often edgy, intolerant, and grumpy. Mark's perfectly normal teenage lifestyle, his friends, music and even the way he speaks seems to annoy Janet to the point where she regularly makes negative comments and criticisms.


    Mark is a bright and sensitive lad. He knows his grandmother has dementia and that the changes in her personality are due to the focal brain damage.  Mark also knows that his grandmother's diagnosis of Alzheimer's means she will not recover. But, as my exasperated friend put it, "logic lasts a millisecond when they are in the same room."


    Part of the problem seems to be that they used to be so close. When Mark was young, he and Janet would have ‘special chats.' Over a drink of juice, they would sit for ages talking about their lives, telling jokes, drawing and reading.


    Janet is now a shadow of the person Mark once knew and loved. Janet had an extensive general knowledge that put everyone to shame. I met her on several occasions and was impressed by her intellect, her liberal views, the care she lavished on those around her and the time she devoted to her charitable works. In just two years Alzheimer's has robbed both of them. Janet knows she has Alzheimer's and she realizes that her memory and her sense of her own identity are affected. Her loss seems to have focused on Mark who is frequently at the sharp end of what can still be a formidable, if fading, intellect.


    Late adolescence has its own complexities. So much happens in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Relationships are renegotiated and undergo constant change. People who were central to their existence as children become less so as peer groups become more important. Even without his grandmother, Mark is often a sullen and self-absorbed individual. His evolving sense of self means he is sensitive to criticism, sometimes quick to react with his vocabulary of insults, and slow to forgive.


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    My poor friend. She is caught between a rock and a hard place. Her son frets that the situation will never end and his grandmother will simply move in. My friend spends hours reassuring her son that he is still loved, still as important as he ever was and still the center of her life. Yet, she has to broker peace between Mark and Janet on an almost daily basis, to the point where she now looks and sounds shattered.


    There are no quick fixes or easy answers to a situation like this. In many ways it represents a microcosm of society. Each day a new set of challenges will be thrown up and have to be managed. I'm just pleased that I can offer an ear, a hug and a cup of tea to my friend. From what she says, it does her a world of good.

Published On: July 03, 2008