When I was attempting to choose between social work and psychology as my major, I took a class that required a certain number of volunteer hours in a setting where a social worker generally works. As a result, I spent some of the saddest hours of my life helping a social worker on the top floor of a building in a very nice retirement community. Of all the floors in all the buildings, only this one was locked. Here lived the men and women with severe cases of dementia, often Alzheimer’s Disease. I will never forget my experience there, and, although I am deeply grateful for it, I will never go back. I ended up graduating with a degree in Psychology, partially due to that class.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive and irreversible disease that eats away a person’s memory and cognitive ability, eventually destroying even basic functionality. It is fatal and there is no cure. All this is horrifying enough for the patient in the initial stages, but the family experiences devastating effects as well. In particular, the caregiver almost without exception will experience negative effects on their physical, emotional and financial well-being.
The family role in the face of this disease must be one of support in order to avoid lasting damage to any family members. For parents, this support will be especially difficult if the individual afflicted with the disease are their own mother or father. In those circumstances, a parent must navigate the emotional strain that the role reversal of parenting one’s own parents will cause while maintaining the emotional stability necessary to be an effective mother or father.
Many parents will feel the impulse to shelter their children from the details of this disease, thinking to spare their children pain by hiding the situation. In reality, even very young children will be well aware there is a serious problem, and older children and teens will simply resent any deception. Better to give them an age appropriate explanation and then provide the support they need to deal with it, rather than having them discover confusing bits and pieces while listening out of sight.
The best advice in this circumstance is to seek support as much as possible, both from other family members and in support groups. It will be painful and the best source of strength will be a strong network of support.