Minding Our Elders: Grandma’s swearing upsets familyDEAR CAROL: My grandma and I have always been close and I love her very much. She’s got Alzheimer’s disease, now, and she’s started swearing which isn’t like her at all. She uses words that embarrass me when my friends are around. I know it’s not her fault, but I really am upset by it. My parents are bothered by it, too, but they say we just have to live with it. I’m fourteen and mature, but this is really bothering me. – Angie
By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM
DEAR CAROL: My grandma and I have always been close and I love her very much. She’s got Alzheimer’s disease, now, and she’s started swearing which isn’t like her at all. She uses words that embarrass me when my friends are around. I know it’s not her fault, but I really am upset by it. My parents are bothered by it, too, but they say we just have to live with it. I’m fourteen and mature, but this is really bothering me. – Angie
DEAR ANGIE: You’ve been fortunate to have been able to enjoy a close relationship with your grandma. Many young people don’t have that opportunity – or don’t take it, so treasure the wonderful memories you’ve built with her. You mention that you are mature and I believe you are. The fact that you wrote to express frustration and concern shows that you are truly interested in your grandma’s illness and how it affects not only you, but your whole family.
People with Alzheimer’s disease suffer from memory loss, anxiety, frustration and often fear caused, in part, by the fact that their environment no longer makes sense to them. Since there is still much that isn’t understood about Alzheimer’s, no one can be sure if swearing, which is not uncommon, is caused by these feelings or by some other mechanism in the brain that has become damaged. Whatever the cause, your parents are right that it’s not your grandma’s fault.
I think it may be helpful for you to go online to the Alzheimer’s Association at www.alz.org. Click on “Inside the brain: An Interactive Tour.” This “tour” of the brain is not only informational, it’s fascinating. I think that some of your friends who know your grandma may be interested in seeing what happens when someone has this disease, as well. If they are misjudging her now, after seeing how the disease affects the brain I’m sure that they will change their minds.
Most likely, you feel embarrassed for your grandma because you know she’d never act like this if she could control her behavior. It’s the disease that’s acting out, not her. Your concern just shows what a wonderful granddaughter you are.
I’m sure your parents will do all that they can to help you face this, but they are also torn apart by these changes in your grandma. It often helps if you can talk with someone you trust who isn’t emotionally involved.
If your school counselor knows about Alzheimer’s disease, you may find that he or she can help you navigate this challenge. Maybe your school can even set up a dementia support group for teens since you’re undoubtedly not the only person in your school struggling with a similar issue. If you find yourself becoming depressed or overly stressed about the changes in your grandma, you may want to talk to your parents about seeing a professional counselor who understands Alzheimer’s disease and how having a loved one with the disease affects young people.
Take care, Angie. I have a feeling you’ll be helping lots of other teenagers because of all you are learning as you confront the realities of Alzheimer’s disease.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.