Dear Carol: My mother, 78, lives with us. She has Alzheimer’s and it was going all right until lately, but now it’s gotten so that she follows me around the house all the time. She can’t stand losing sight of me, even when I want to use the bathroom.
I know I can’t handle this long term. My husband is good with her and would sit with her while I get a little peace, but that doesn’t help. She still needs to have me in her sight. Do you have any suggestions? — KJ.
Dear KJ: This is sad as well as frustrating for you. Her need to see you isn’t unusual in the later stage of Alzheimer’s, but when it happens, any caregiver would find it exhausting.
Her behavior is generally known as shadowing, and most experts believe that it stems from anxiety or fear. As with most things related to dementia, this makes sense if we put ourselves in the place of the person living with dementia.
Think about how you’d feel if the individual who represents your safety disappeared from sight — so to you, they are truly gone, and you are alone. You would likely seek them out.
I’ve followed this with experts and can offer some tips:
- Try starting a comforting movie that she likes or playing music that might engage her for a while. Some caregivers have recorded their voice or even a video to sync with the TV that shows them talking to the person who needs comfort.
- In some cases, leaving the person with a distracting household task that they can handle on their own will help. Folding towels is often suggested because it's safe and repetitive. Sorting household objects is also a common distraction. The important thing is to avoid anything that could become frustrating since that will only add to her anxiety and fear.
- Validate her feelings by saying, “I know that when you can’t see or hear me you feel anxious and maybe even a little afraid. I can understand that, but there are some things I must do. Do you think you could sit right here in your chair for me and listen to music for a few minutes? Once these songs are done, I should be back.” She isn't likely to remember your words, but your attention may have a calming effect.
- Tell the doctor. Medicating someone with Alzheimer's for shadowing is controversial, but there are cases where anxiety and fear are an overriding factor in someone’s life and a low dose of anti-anxiety medication may be warranted. All medications must be weighed against an increased risk of falling and an even foggier brain.
KJ, I need to emphasize that while none of these steps is guaranteed to solve your mom's need to seek you out, most have helped the problem some of the time.
Remember, too, that while there will be other challenges as her disease progresses, this stage of dementia is likely to pass.
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 through the contact form on her website.