Bursack: People with dementia still sensitive to caregiver's body language

Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist. Special to The Forum
Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist. Special to The ForumSpecial to The Forum

Dear Carol: My sister is the primary caregiver for our dad, who is in a nursing home because of Alzheimer’s disease. She lives in his community and I live over 100 miles away. I try to visit every other weekend to give my sister a much-deserved break, and often we’ll meet at the nursing home. I do understand her stress. She has a husband, a job, middle school-age kids with all that goes with raising kids, plus the primary responsibility of our dad.

The problem is that her stress shows in her body language when she's helping him. I know that I'm not always as soothing and gentle as I should be either, so I’m not being super critical about her. Still, I’m not sure that she’s aware that she needs to try to do better in this area. Dad sometimes looks confused even when she’s trying to soothe him, and I’m wondering if her motions tell him that she’s angry. Should I bring this up? — LT.

Dear LT: You are correct that body language can be important to someone living with dementia. Many senses are compromised by the disease so, especially in later stages, people often depend on a gentle touch and soothing movements for a feeling of security.

Your understanding of your sister’s stress load, as well as your involvement with your dad’s care, are both going to be helpful with this uncomfortable situation. Your sister's much more likely to take constructive suggestions from you than if you were just an occasional drop-in sibling. You also admit to having this issue with your own body language, which I feel is a vital part of the conversation.

It’s natural for us to hurry under stress, sometimes causing our touch and even our other motions when providing care to be less than warm and gentle. It takes a conscious effort to control this, so I do think that you need to speak up in such a way that your sister will understand that this is something you both need to work on. The two of you might benefit from the habit of stepping into the hall for deep breathing breaks when you catch yourself tensing up.

My suggestion would be to take your sister somewhere that you both can feel relaxed while you chat. In this setting, you could bring up her stress load and tell her how much you appreciate what she’s doing even with all of the pressure that she has.

You could then mention that you've read that body language is important when caring for someone like your dad. Say that you're trying to learn to project calm rather than hurry but you know that you don't always succeed. She may pick up on this and say that she, too, needs to watch her body language. If she doesn't, then it's time to gently ask her to consider this issue with her own interactions.

This is about your dad, so I thinking speaking up is the right thing to do.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbradleybursack@mindingourelders.com.