Stressed caregivers can make people with dementia more anxious

In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol hears from a reader whose father refuses to get any help with her mother, who is living with Alzheimer's disease.

Carol Bradley Bursack updated column sig for online 10-21-19.jpg
Carold Bradley Bursack, "Minding Our Elders" columnist.
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Dear Carol: My mom’s been living with Alzheimer’s for several years and Dad refuses to get any help with her. My sister and I have begged him to place Mom in memory care because the facilities where they live are good, but he has always adored her and feels like he must be her protector. We’re afraid for both of them because while he means well, her care is getting too difficult.

He still says the right words, but his body language shows his stress level is high and he’s becoming impatient, which is unlike him. I’m sure his stress is affecting Mom, too, and making her more anxious. That, of course, makes her harder to care for. I’ve mentioned this to him gently several times, but he gets angry with me when I do. How can I help them? — LR.

Dear LR: This is a tough place for you, but you’re right that something needs to change. I understand your dad’s devotion and his feeling that he should do this out of love. He’s protective of her and thinks that he can care for her better than anyone else. It’s not unusual for people to feel that way, but in the end, nearly everyone needs some type of help with dementia care.

While I advocate for caregivers to be aware of how their own body language stemming from stress could make their loved one more anxious, I wouldn’t dwell on that with your dad right now.

Instead, you might say, “No one can do this alone forever, Dad, and Mom senses that caring for her is getting too hard on you. If she’s worried about you, she will become more anxious and might even feel guilty for causing you so much work.”



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Remind him that he hasn’t ever failed her and never will. He’s just reached the point where he can’t provide complete care on his own. Reiterate as often as you must that it nearly always takes more than one person to provide the best care for someone in the later years of dementia.
In-home help might be a stopgap measure if he needs to get used to having help. In the end, though, a memory care unit could allow him to gain some distance, do some healing and even concentrate on being your mom’s husband rather than just her overworked caregiver.

Does he have a friend, a pastor or a doctor who could explain how both he and your mom would do better with some extra help? He may be more accepting of the advice if it comes from peers or from an authority figure rather than his children because the family dynamic can make things difficult.

It’s also possible that your dad's own doctor could influence him if no one else can. He needs to understand that if his health deteriorates significantly, he may not be able to provide any care at all — so staying well is vital to maintaining his role as his wife’s primary advocate.

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 She can be reached through the contact form on her website.

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