"I just told you that,” I said sharply to my mother, reminding her about an upcoming doctor's appointment. She looked hurt. I immediately felt guilty.
In my caregiving years, scenes like this played out too many times. Sometimes she responded defensively by saying, “You didn't tell me that,” and I insisted that I did. Other times, she became defensive and I would know enough to hold my tongue. Knowledge was never the issue. As a psychologist for 25 years, I had counseled hundreds of family caregivers of dementia sufferers that it isn't helpful to constantly correct their cognitive mistakes, such as forgetting appointments, misremembering conversations and being unable to recall whether they'd had breakfast. When confronted with their errors, those with cognitive deficits only feel flustered and stumble further. To bring out the best in your loved one, I've always told caregivers, you must be as patient and supportive as possible and let the simple, harmless mistakes slide.
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But why did I have so much difficulty practicing this advice with my own mother? Like many other family caregivers, I was caught up in my emotions. My mother had run businesses and other organizations. She'd been ultra competent and very bright. It was painful for me to be a daily witness to her light's dimming. Correcting her repeatedly, I knew, wasn't going to change the course of her decline from dementia. But on a subconscious level, it was a refusal to accept the slow disappearance of the commanding mother I'd always known.
Family caregivers need to be vigilant about their loved ones’ short-term memory deficits that pose safety issues — for example, taking medications incorrectly. But they also must manage their own emotional reactions to a care recipient's forgetfulness in order to cease making critical comments. How can we roll with a loved one's memory loss? Here are some ideas.
Let go of your memories
Forgetting who our dementia-afflicted family members used to be isn't an option. We remember well their unique personalities, special capabilities and proud accomplishments, especially when we still catch small glimpses of who they were during their occasional moments of lucidity. But to accept them as they are today and help them do as well as they can, we must loosen the grip of those powerful memories. Consider using mindfulness practices, such as breathing exercises and meditation, to step fully into the present moments with them, even if their current condition pains you. We want to be focused and aware, so we can respond to them with compassion as they are, not as they were.