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ElderLaw Answers Newsletter: Alzheimer's – The Thief Who Stole My Wife and Made Me a Stranger

Chambliss Law Firm Monthly Editorial – July 2016


Alzheimer's: The Thief Who Stole My Wife and Made Me a Stranger

by Amy Boulware, Elder Care Planning Manager, (LAP MSW)

Sam approached me with tears in his eyes. He quietly said, “I need your advice.” His voice cracked with emotion, and those tears were on the verge of overflowing. I have known Sam for 15 years and have never seen him cry. 
He normally has a booming voice, shows a bright smile, and commands attention with his large stature. When he enters a room, people know he means business.
However on this day, he didn’t have that same look. He looked thinner, and his face was haggard; he was clearly upset. “Kiddo,” he said, “I am at a complete loss, and I don’t know what to do.” Sam is 92 and has been married to Ann, the love of his life, for 65 years. She has Alzheimer’s disease and has been having difficulty communicating, dressing, and bathing. Most recently, Ann has been faced with the hardest symptom of all: memory loss. She has become extremely agitated because she thinks a strange man is living in her house. This man is Sam. She no longer recognizes the man she has known and loved for more than six decades. 
Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. It is a progressive disease where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. Patients tend to live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others, but survival can range from four to 20 years, depending on age and other health conditions. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer's and in Ann's case, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment. 
Ann's agitation and confusion became so bad that Sam and his children were advised by her primary care doctor to admit her to a geriatric psychiatric unit where her behaviors could be assessed. Leaving her at the hospital was hard for Sam, but he hoped they would be able to help her calm down so that he could bring her back home. Unfortunately, that was not the recommendation of Ann's doctors. That's when Sam came to me for advice. 
I have been working with Sam and his wife as their geriatric social worker for nine years. Sam knew he could trust me and told me he could no longer care for his wife at home. He said the doctors had determined she should not be left alone with him because of her new paranoia and fear, in addition to memory loss. "I can't believe that she doesn't know who I am," said Sam. He has loved this woman for almost his entire life, and now the doctors say he can't take care of her. He was devastated. He shared with me that his guilt was overwhelming.  He felt completely lost without her. 
With the help of his children, he found a secure memory care unit for her in an assisted living community. He said it seemed nice, and the staff was capable. But every time he had to leave her after a visit, he felt a pain in the pit of his stomach. Sam's emotions are common when a spouse has to find care outside the home. He was experiencing grief, loss, sadness, guilt, and fear all wrapped up in one horrible package. There are no simple answers when dealing with such a complex decision, but I did offer Sam the following suggestions as he faced the days ahead.

10 Steps to Take after a Loved One's Alzheimer's Diagnosis:

  1. Admit to yourself that you are coping with a significant adjustment, and be patient as you get used to a new normal.
  2. Don't beat yourself up for agreeing to get care outside of the home. You were advised by professionals that this was the right thing to do, and this does not make you a bad person. Your loved one is safe and will be cared for by trained professionals who understand the disease process.
  3. Talk about your feelings to people you trust, but realize that not everyone will understand your grief.
  4. Find a support group of other caregivers who are facing similar obstacles. 
  5. Take care of yourself. Often caregivers fall apart before the person they are caring for. Eat, Exercise, and Sleep!  
  6. Remain active with your family and friends; going out with others does not mean that you are abandoning your loved one. He/she would want you to enjoy yourself.
  7. Create a "Knowing Ann" book for all caregivers to read. Some things to include would be favorite things, preferences, and anything you think will help your loved one feel comfortable in the new environment.
  8. Plan your visits. Make sure your expectations are realistic. Don't feel like you have to stay all day long. Short pop-in visits are okay. 
  9. Understand that some days will be better than others. Be happy and embrace the good moments. They will give you strength to weather the bad times. 
  10. Contact your area Alzheimer's Association.

If you have any questions or comments, please reach out to me or another member of the Chambliss Elder Care team. We are just a call or email away.