When he walked into my office, Pierre appeared a beaten man. Stooped, sad and sighing, he led his wife of 50 years by the hand. Ann, scowling, asked why she needed to be there: The problem lay with her husband, she said — definitely not with her.
As Pierre understood, but Ann didn't, she had been showing the sort of personality change and memory decline over the past year that is characteristic of Alzheimer's disease. Unfortunately, she refused (until recently) to see a doctor for an evaluation. She was furious at Pierre and berated him daily anytime he pointed out problems with her memory or restricted her from driving. She would curse and scream at him, shake her fists in his face and occasionally even slap him.
Pierre loved his wife dearly but was at his wit's end. Only by threatening to leave her was he finally able to get her to reluctantly agree to see me in our memory center.
The verbal abuse that Pierre was experiencing as a caregiver for someone with dementia is very common and often takes a severe emotional toll. These caregivers have significantly higher rates of physical illness, depression and even mortality compared to noncaregivers, which in turn reduces their ability to provide quality care.
As I reminded Pierre, it's crucial that you, the caregiver, not blame yourself for an illness that you cannot control. Talk therapy and support groups with other caregivers in similar situations can help.
You also should make time to get regular medical checkups, exercise and a break from your loved one to recharge. And if you're suffering from severe symptoms such as poor sleep, weight loss, loss of energy and interest, intense guilt and even suicidal or homicidal thinking, seek prompt psychiatric attention.
But you also need to get to the root of the abuse, which can often be reversed or diminished with treatment. There are three basic steps that can turn the tide here.