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Published October 27, 2012, 11:35 PM

Minding Our Elders: Mother’s cognitive changes frustrating

Dear Carol: My mother’s dementia is taking a toll on both of us. There are times when she doesn’t understand what is happening around her, so she gets angry, calls me names and even accuses me of stealing. Other times, she seems very clear, but those times are almost worse for me because she says things like “Just give me something to end this.” Five minutes later, she’s back to being mad at me or anyone else near her. I don’t know which extreme is harder to cope with. Isn’t there a way to find some middle ground with this disease? – Jan

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

Dear Carol: My mother’s dementia is taking a toll on both of us. There are times when she doesn’t understand what is happening around her, so she gets angry, calls me names and even accuses me of stealing.

Other times, she seems very clear, but those times are almost worse for me because she says things like “Just give me something to end this.” Five minutes later, she’s back to being mad at me or anyone else near her. I don’t know which extreme is harder to cope with.

Isn’t there a way to find some middle ground with this disease? – Jan

Dear Jan: I understand and strongly sympathize with your desire to get things normalized again, since I’ve been in similar situations myself. This is a high wire act with a lot of discomfort.

While there may be no effective treatment, there are ways to try and manage things.

First, however, take your mom for regular medical checkups to ensure that she’s getting the best care possible. It can help to keep a written record in case you can trace her moods to the timing of some medication she’s taking. After you’ve done your best medically, you will have to work on accepting that your mother’s behavior is tied to her disease. You can’t change that, nor can she.

While it’s human to compare the two extremes of your mother’s cognitive issues, it likely doesn’t help you to do so. When your mom’s lucid, she takes stock of her situation and rejects it.

Try saying, “I’m so sorry you have to suffer so much. You know I can’t make you well, but I’ll do everything that I can to make you more comfortable.” If there’s something concrete you can offer to do, such as telling her you’ll check with the doctor about a different medication, tell her you’ll do that. Otherwise, just let her know that you love her and repeat that you’ll do everything you can to help her.

When your mother’s angry, calling you names and accusing you of stealing, do your best not to contradict her or argue with her, as she will probably just get more agitated. I know that’s a hard stance to take when she thinks you’ve stolen something, but try calmly saying, “Let’s look for it together,” and then begin searching. Meanwhile, if you’re fortunate, you may be able to distract her from her thought process. Otherwise, you’ll just have to weather it or walk away and take a break.

Try to detach from your mother’s moods by not taking the insults personally. Also, it may help if you can find some quiet humor in the situation that you can later share with a friend.

I wish we could magically fix these issues, but often there isn’t much we can do but get through them. Agree with her when it’s appropriate, distract and redirect her when she’s upset, and try to accept the reality that her disease is controlling her behavior. Also, remember that you aren’t alone. Support groups, either online or in person, can help us keep things in perspective.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.

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