Dementia, Anxiety and caregiving

An entry on dementia may seem a bit out of place on a blog that addresses anxiety and chronic illness. However, it is relevant for several reasons.

First and foremost, I have several clients whose reason for seeking treatment was that they were experiencing feelings of acute anxiety that were not precipitated by any triggers consistent with an anxiety disorder. As it turned out, these people had a parent or spouse who had been diagnosed with some form of dementia. In many cases, they were swamped with anxious feelings shortly after learning about the diagnosis — and as the symptoms of their loved one’s dementia became more obviously problematic, so too did their own anxiety.

There are many different types of dementia, and no test can determine with 100% accuracy the type from which one may suffer. Unlike other physical illnesses, the diagnosis can be frustratingly vague, and it is difficult to know exactly what to expect in terms of symptoms and the course the disease will take. To complicate matters, if the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, symptoms can vary widely from person to person. All of this ambiguity and uncertainty can initiate feelings of confusion, fear, depression and loss. Moreover, if you suffer from health anxiety, or generalized anxiety disorder, it can unleash a flood of fear that you may develop dementia at some point in the future. You may experience simultaneous feelings of worry about your parent and your own fears of a pending ominous future.

Needless to say, anxiety is not the only challenge one encounters in dealing with a parent or spouse suffering from dementia. In my practice, I have counseled many families who are learning to navigate the process of accepting the limitations of a family member with a chronic illness. There are specific differences to caregiving someone with dementia, and it requires even more care and attention.

The majority of incidents of elder abuse occurs not within the confines of a nursing facility but in the home, where care is being given by a family member. This is because the stress of taking care of an individual who is significantly cognitively impaired can be extremely frustrating at best, and often simply overwhelming. The demands placed upon the primary caregiver are often relentless and unrealistic. When the individual with dementia is a parent, caregiving often falls on the children, particularly if the parent’s spouse is deceased or ill. It’s safe to say there is a good reason for the term “caregiver burnout.”

One would expect that such demands and responsibilities would be shared equally if the parent in question has more than one child, particularly if they all live in the same locale. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. All too often, one of the children becomes more involved with the parent’s care, and the other siblings permit that burden to fall upon their brother or sister. They are often quite happy to allow their sibling to accept the majority of responsibilities; and resentments, unsurprisingly, can follow.

Before you find yourself releasing your frustration on your parent or partner, it is important that you seek resources that can support you. You need to be able to maintain a proper balance of giving care and taking care of yourself. If you are in a position where you find that your anxiety is building, locate a therapist and get treatment. If you are in the position of being the primary caregiver and have siblings that cannot (or will not) help you, utilizing the assistance of a therapist competent in caregiver mediation can be beneficial.