If you feel that Azheimer’s is turning your parent, grandparent or spouse into a whole different person, you’re not alone. Many caregivers have experienced the heartbreak of watching the disease transform their loved ones’ personalities — making them aggressive and suspicious, depressed and apathetic, fearful and panicky, or even rude and impulsive.
It’s important to remember that your loved one isn’t doing any of this on purpose. Sudden personality changes are symptoms of Alzheimer’s, which attacks brain areas that regulate emotion and instinct. As a result, people with the disease often experience intense bursts of anxiety, anger and sadness — while losing the ability to control their behavioral impulses.
You can help your loved one by listening to them, pinpointing the causes of their emotional distress, and taking steps to minimize those triggers. Here are some tips that may help.
Start by identifying specific behaviors, and the emotions that drive each one.
When Alzheimer’s alters your loved one’s personality, you may feel that the disease is “turning them into someone else.” However, it’s crucial to keep in mind that they’re still the same person deep down. What’s really changing are specific emotions and behaviors — and the first step to helping your loved one is to identify what those are.
It often helps to describe a situation in which the person with Alzheimer’s acted out of character. When and where did it happen? Who else was present? What did your loved one say and do, exactly? Though it may be painful to revisit the event, details like these will help you put a name to the problematic behavior, and label the emotions that may have sparked it.
For example, if your loved one threatened a family member or lashed out in an aggressive way, they may have felt frightened or suspicious. If they panicked or wandered off, a startling sight or sound may have made them anxious. If they behaved rudely or inappropriately, they may have felt confused or disoriented. And if your loved one suddenly loses interest in familiar activities and people, it’s entirely possible they may be depressed.
These feelings are not your fault — and they’re not your loved one’s fault, either. However, even if the causes of certain emotions seem irrational or insignificant, the emotions themselves are just as real and genuine as yours. With that in mind, you can learn a lot by inviting the person in your care to communicate about what they’re going through.
Talk to your loved one about their feelings, and listen with compassion.
Once you’ve identified a problematic behavior, it’s important not to jump to conclusions about the causes. While anger and sadness may seem easy to identify, those surface-level feelings often arise out of deeper emotional turmoil. Anger, for example, can be a defensive reaction against fear — while sadness can be a symptom of frustration. So if possible, talk with your loved one about how they’re feeling, and let them put it in their own words.
Instead of criticizing a specific behavior, which will likely provoke a defensive response (even if your loved one doesn’t remember the event you’re referring to), you’ll get much further by talking in general terms. Try opening with questions like, “How are you feeling?” or, “You seem angry to me today; is something making you feel that way?” If your loved one resists or avoids the topic, don’t push. Sit and listen for a while, and they may talk their way around to it.
While your loved one may not be able to communicate everything they’re feeling, you can learn a lot just by letting them vent. Even if they accuse you or someone else of wrongdoing, don’t correct them or argue about the facts — and avoid making dismissive responses like, “There’s no reason to feel afraid,” which imply that your loved one’s feelings are invalid or “wrong.”
Instead, acknowledge the reality of the feeling itself, by saying things like, “That sounds very frustrating,” or, “That would make me angry, too” — speaking in the same respectful tone of voice you’d use to comfort a friend. Whatever your loved one says, stay focused on validating their experiences, expressing sympathy for their pain, and reaffirming that you’re here to help.
As you get a clearer sense of the problem, try redirecting your loved one’s attention to a more productive outlet — for example, “When I feel angry, I take a walk around the block. In fact, I’m going to do that right now. Will you join me?” You can also try offering suggestions for addressing emotional triggers, such as, “I wonder if you’d feel safer with a light on in your room. Do you want to try that tonight?” If they respond positively, that’s a very good sign.
Try to minimize triggers that cause emotional distress for your loved one.
Many unpleasant emotions and behaviors can be avoided by eliminating sources of annoyance and stress. Physical discomfort is one of the most frequent causes — so before changing anything else, make sure the person in your care isn’t hungry, thirsty, over-tired, too hot or cold, or in need of a visit to the restroom. Minimizing your loved one’s exposure to loud noises, bright lights, dark rooms and unfamiliar people can sometimes work wonders, too.
Anger and aggression, meanwhile, may arise from a feeling of lack of control; in which case some independence and personal space may be the answer. If your loved one seems depressed, on the other hand, involving them in daily tasks like meal prep and laundry-folding can significantly improve their mood. Spending quality time reminiscing, playing games, and working on art projects together can all help bring back a spark of that “old self” you know and love.
However, if you believe your loved one is suffering from a more serious mental illness, it could be time to talk to your doctor. Medication may not be the answer, but a medical professional will still be able to recommend other therapies you haven’t tried — along with a referral to a mental health specialist, if necessary. Reaching out to your local Alzheimer’s support group is also a smart idea. Other caregivers can provide unique insights and recommendations based on their own experience, and will probably be eager to pitch in and help.
Along the way, make sure you’re allowing yourself to process your own feelings, too. Part of being an Alzheimer’s caregiver is grieving for the loss of a person who’s still in your life — and that’s hard to accept. But even if your loved one’s personality will never be quite the same as before, you can make the most of your time together by focusing on the things that haven’t changed: their favorite songs and movies, their memories of bygone days, and the love you continue to share.