Family & Relationships

How Alzheimer's Affects Family

Alzheimer’s will strongly impact the family of the individual with the disease. The amount of time it will take to adjust to the diagnosis will vary from person to person, for both the individual with Alzheimer’s and their family members.

Spouse

If there is a spouse, she or he is likely to encounter very strong emotions related to the diagnosis.

  • Many times spouses also have to deal with their own health problems.
  • They may fear a future that will be very different from the one they had planned.
  • Husbands and wives often must reverse roles and take on unfamiliar tasks.

Depending on their relationship, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can bring couples closer together or it can alienate them. Spouses need to accept that the person they have known and loved may change dramatically in personality and behavior, and there will likely come a time when their loved one does not recognize them.

Getting Help for the Spouse

The spouse may appreciate getting together with others in a similar situation to discuss events and feelings. He or she may need offers of help with meals, transportation, and other tasks, as well as simple, kind acts such as visits and respite. Caregiver training and support groups can be very helpful. In some cases, professional counseling may be needed.

Role Reversal for Adult Children

Adult children will also need to adjust to the role reversal in caring for a parent. They may feel overwhelmed by the looming responsibilities of their own workplace, caring for their own children, and helping their parent. They may feel angry at the burden falling to them. Adult children who do not live close by may feel guilty, not fully comprehend, or perhaps even deny the realities of the disease.

At a minimum:

  • Family members should support the main caregiver and offer help.
  • Those at a distance can undertake those tasks that do not require proximity.

Helping Families Cope

Family members may want to meet with the person with Alzheimer’s, to discuss his or her needs, build supports, and find resources. As distressing as a parent’s or partner’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis can be, this is the time to begin to accept the future, build a support network, gather information to help alleviate fears, and plan for the road ahead.

If this proves difficult for the family, consider including:

  • A mediator or objective third party, to help with identifying needs and breaking down tasks
  • A professional geriatric care manager, who can evaluate the situation and help identify solutions for long-term care

Addressing the Concerns of Young People

Children and adolescents are also affected. If someone in the family, a grandparent for example, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the young person may feel:

  • sad
  • frustrated
  • angry, or
  • afraid

Younger family members should be encouraged to ask questions and express feelings, which should be honestly addressed. They need to understand that although the loved one may act differently, there are still activities they can enjoy with their relative, such as helping with chores, listening to music, or reading a book. Read our expert article about helping children understand Alzheimer's diease.

Teachers and guidance counselors should be made aware of the situation. There are also books and support groups that deal specifically with young people. We offer a publication to help children cope with Alzheimer’s disease, Through Tara’s Eyes.