When your parent has Alzheimer’s disease, you can’t help but worry about their well-being. However, when a loving spouse is acting as caregiver, you can at least take comfort in the fact that they’re cared for in everyday life. But what happens when that husband or wife dies? Dealing with a parent’s death is never easy, and Alzheimer’s disease adds an extra layer of complexity to an already difficult time.
If you’re caring for a surviving parent with Alzheimer’s disease, you probably have some big questions about the right way to handle breaking the news and managing life after loss. To help, here are answers to some common questions about helping a widowed parent with Alzheimer’s disease.
1. Should I tell my parent her spouse died?
Seniors have a right to know when a spouse has died, no matter their health status. However, children should be prepared for the incredibly heart-wrenching challenge of breaking the news multiple times. Depending on the severity of your parent’s disease, their understanding could lie anywhere on a very broad spectrum. They could have total understanding, occasionally ask where their spouse is, or never mention their spouse’s name. Regardless, they deserve to know that their life partner has passed, even if their capacity for understanding lasts days or mere minutes. The key is to be patient. It can be hard to have to explain something so painful time and time again, but you have to understand that your parent genuinely doesn’t remember. Although memories are clear and sharp in your mind, there’s is muddled and fading.
A parent may be emotionally devastated upon hearing the news of her partner’s death and the next day be asking where he is. To manage your parent’s needs while remaining sensitive to your own grief, remind her in clear, simple language of her spouse’s passing and before turning the conversation to more positive thoughts — talking about fond memories is a helpful way to share in your grief together without lingering on the painful moments. If you notice it’s a bad day for your parent’s disease, it’s OK to avoid the conversation as long as you remain honest. Rather than lying, simply change the subject.
2. Will my parent ever remember that her spouse is gone?
Your parent’s capacity for understanding the death will depend on the stage of Alzheimer’s disease she is in. Sufferers in severe decline may be unable to commit the loss to memory, and even patients in moderate decline may inconsistently remember that their spouse has passed away. However, the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on short-term memory vary from person to person, so you shouldn’t assume a surviving parent with Alzheimer’s can’t understand. It is important to realize that your parent may not ask about their deceased spouse because they don’t realize it has happened. Don’t get upset or try to force them to remember. Not only will it upset and confuse them, but it may cause feelings of sadness or anger in yourself. Focus on the memories you have of your parents together, and talk about it with other family members if you need someone to reminisce with.
Needing to remind a parent with Alzheimer’s disease about a spouse’s passing is a common thread in stories about dealing with this unique loss. Some people report that one day, their surviving parent’s questions switched from “Where is my husband?” to “Is he really gone?” Others say that hearing of a husband or wife’s death let their parent pass peacefully after a long struggle with a disabling illness. If your loved one is struggling to remember, one unique option to consider is music therapy. Many individuals with Alzheimer’s can remember and sing songs well into the advanced stages, and it may help with memory recall if the songs were those that they enjoyed with their spouse. In addition to reviving lost memories, music can help your loved one regain a sense of control over their life, promote positive mood changes, and provide stimulation where other approaches have fallen short.
3. Where will my widowed parent live?
If your parent’s Alzheimer’s disease was being managed at home before her spouse’s death, living arrangements will need to change now that her primary caregiver is gone. For adult children, this means choosing between a few options. Your widowed parent could move into assisted living, come live with you, or receive 24/7 in-home care to help manage her illness.
The right choice will depend on your budget, the progression of your parent’s disease, and whether either home is set up for accessible living. While this is a difficult decision to make while you’re dealing with the aftermath of a parent’s death, it’s crucial for your surviving parent to have the support she needs to manage everyday life.
If you have more questions about how to help your parent with Alzheimer’s disease cope with loss, connect with an Alzheimer’s support group or speak to a mental health professional experienced in grief counseling. There are free online bereavement programs available as well, so be sure to do your research to figure out the resources available to you and your family. Losing a parent while caring for another is a profoundly difficult moment in life, and there’s no shame in seeking support.
Lydia Chan is the co-creator of Alzheimerscaregiver.net, which provides tips and resources to help caregivers.
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