Unfortunately, more times than not, siblings do not share equal responsibility for caregiving for our parents with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of physical distance: they want to help, but they are too far away.
However, that is generally not the reason.
Parent-child relationships are complicated from the get-go and each child makes a conscious decision whether to maintain a close relationship or not with his or her parents as an adult (usually as soon as he or she leaves home). These are heart decisions.
For siblings, much of whatever the tenor of their relationships were growing up extends into their relationships as adults.
However, one of the complicating factors is real and imagined grudges and resentments (known or unknown) by siblings, often from perceived wrongs that occurred all along the way of their lives, that are nurtured and grow into full-blown anger and disconnection from each other and from the family.
This happens disproportionately more often than it doesn’t, but if caregivers find themselves in the rare position of having supportive and engaged and grateful siblings, then they should count their blessings.
In this post, we will look at three common areas that can be stressors for our loved ones with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease and what we as caregivers can do to reduce or eliminate these sources of stress.
A source of stress for all human beings is not having our needs met. These include physical needs, spiritual needs, emotional needs, and psychological needs. Even for those of us who have no cognitive impairment, these needs are difficult, at times, to quantify and to verbalize.
For our loved ones with cognitive impairment, where thought and verbiage are tangibly disconnecting from each other, expressing needs that need to be met is even harder, if even possible. Therefore, the responsibility lies with us as caregivers to examine whether there may be needs that aren’t being met.
I strongly urge each of us as caregivers to call to conscious memory who our loved ones were before dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease took center stage. This exercise is vital in determining what needs our loved ones may have that are not being met and then finding ways to meet those needs.
So, let’s ask some questions. Was your loved one a social person who enjoyed being around people? Were faith and spiritual sustenance an important part of your loved one’s life? Was your loved one hot or cold-natured? What were your loved one’s food preferences, meal schedules, and general diet look like? Did your loved one like to exercise or not? Did your loved one like being outdoors or indoors? Did your loved one prefer a lot of light coming into the house or did your loved one prefer less light?
While this list is not exhaustive, we should be able to to see areas in which our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease may have unmet needs. If our loved one was always cold-natured, for example, and we keep the temperature in our homes low, then the need that needs to be met is ensuring that our loved one is warm at all times, whether that means dressing them in layers or turning up the thermostat.
Another example would be that, if our loved one was a social person who loved to be around other people a lot, he or she may be lonely or experiencing isolation as their social network disappears (this happens frequently, I believe, because of the discomfort that a lot of people experience around dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease and because communication can be difficult, so most people don’t make the effort). An easy remedy to this can be something as simple as going to sit in a bookstore, a library, or even the mall on a regular basis. Even though our loved ones may not be making one-on-one contact with all those people, we can talk with them and they can be surrounded by people and it gives the same effect.
I offer these to hopefully stimulate our creativity in safely and successfully eliminating, as far as we are able as caregivers, the unmet needs of our loved ones with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease. As needs get met, there will be less depression and less apathy, which is often the result of unmet needs.
Another stressor can be the physical environment. As cognition declines, the ability to sort through complex situations to have a sense of where to go, what to do, and how to do it becomes increasingly difficult.
So let’s look at some ways that physical environment can make this even more stressful for our loved ones suffering with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Let’s take clothing (which for me, personally, has always been a challenge because of a rare aspect of color-blindness I suffer from, so I have a very limited and basic wardrobe to eliminate this as a stressor from my life). For our loved ones suffering with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease, opening a closet full of clothes and shoes is a stressor. Often times, when you see someone wearing the same clothes several days in a row, it’s because the physical environment component of trying to pick clothes out of a closet is too stressful.
There are several ways to eliminate this as a stressor. One is to pare down the clothing to a few outfits and to put clothes that are meant to be worn with each other together on the same hanger. Another way to address this is to lay the day’s clothing out where it needs to be put on (for example, a daytime outfit hangs on the closet door – don’t forget the shoes! – and pajamas are on the pillow on the bed).
Why does this help? Beyond the obvious reason that it reduces stress and confusion, it can often also help our loved ones be more independent in personal grooming and dressing. Most dependence comes from simply not knowing what to do. If we as caregivers can eliminate the stressor of having to make complex choices, then we can also give the gift of more independence to our loved ones.
In many ways, this is no different from what parents do with children as they grow up to make the children more independent in taking care of their own needs as much as they are able. It reduces the stress for everyone involved, and our loved ones are no different in that respect.
Other physical environment components that can be huge stressors are clutter and a lack of organization. Remember that our loved ones with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease are also experiencing visuoperceptual changes. Therefore, the more clutter and lack of organization that is in our loved ones’ physical environments, the more stress from visuoperceptual issues will affect our loved ones negatively.
Practical ways to eliminate this stressor are to get rid of the clutter and get organized. Pathways need to be clear. Get rid of unnecessary and distracting knick-knacks and other items that are just taking up space (often having too many things to look at is overstimulating and creates stress). Have all living areas organized.
For example, Mama spent a lot of time in the recliner in the living room where she could read, look outside, and we could do activities together. The end table next to the chair was organized with her hearing aids (in a case), her glasses (in a case), her Bible, and a coaster with a fresh glass of water on it at all times. Everything went in the same place every time, so Mama knew exactly where to find what she wanted or needed.
The last stressor that we’ll discuss in this post is daily routines for our loved ones with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease. Unstructured or erratic routines are huge source of stress for our loved ones, in part, because they’re losing or have lost their internal clocks of knowing when to do what and they’re depending on us as caregivers to help them, and when we don’t seem to have an internal clock and schedule of when to do what, it’s frightening.
The unpredictability of something as simple as mealtimes can be very, very scary (think about when we were kids and didn’t know how to tell time and if our parents had eaten whenever the mood struck them, there would’ve been a real concern about if we’d ever eat again).
If bedtime’s at a different time every night, then our loved ones suffering with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease don’t know when they’re supposed to sleep and when they’re supposed to be awake. And if our daytime routines are different every day, there is absolutely no sense of a firm foundation that our loved ones can count on and expect to happen in sequence each day.
All of these create a huge amount of stress for our loved ones. And it’s unnecessary stress that can easily be eliminated. However, it means that we, as caregivers, need to put ourselves on a schedule and adhere to it without deviation (and that can be inconvenient, at times, for us, but it’s not about us, but about our loved ones, so we just have to have the discipline to make it happen).
Once a predictable routine is established and followed, this stressor will be eliminated from the many possible stressors that our loved ones suffering with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s may have be dealing with.
A lot of this is just common sense, but sometimes we have to be reminded to use common sense because life can be quite chaotic and crazy to the point that we, as caregivers, forget to stop, step back, and ascertain what we can do to help our loved ones out. It takes time and it takes patience and it takes slowing down to their paces, but they are worth it!
Today’s post will discuss how dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease affect circadian rhythms and sleep, as well as some tips to help manage sleep disruptions effectively.
There are a lot of factors that make up our sleep behavior. I first want to discuss the biology of sleep and how, even if there are no other sleep disorders, dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease disrupt the biological sleep cycle.
Humans have an internal 24-hour clock that is synchronized with daytime and nighttime (light has a profound impact on this clock). This clock is referred to as our circadian rhythm.
As people age, this clock changes so that they normally tend to go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier. Sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea are more common in older people as well. But their circadian rhythms are still primarily based on light (the more light, the more wakefulness; the less light, the more sleepiness) and time of day.
However, in our loved ones suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, circadian rhythms go out the window because the diseases impair the brain’s ability to tell time and to distinguish between light and dark as indicators of when to sleep and when to awaken. It is sometimes helpful, in the early stages, to get a 24-hour clock to help our loved ones distinguish between A.M. hours and P.M. hours, but eventually that will be a casualty of the diseases.
The most common circadian rhythm disorder associated with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease is a phenomenon known as “sundowning.” It occurs in the late afternoon and early evening.
It is characterized by speech and behavior repetition, constant pacing , excessive restlessness, wandering, disorientation to time and place, and agitation or aggression towards others.
Wandering is especially dangerous because if our loved ones get outside, they can walk long distances with limited vision because of the sun going down, sometimes on crowded roadways, and are susceptible to being the victims of crime and vehicular death.
One probable cause of sundowning is that there is damage to the part of the brain that produces melatonin (the sleep hormone) and the reduced production causes an irregular sleep-wake rhythm.
Another theory on the cause of sundowning is related to the energy levels of our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease . At the end of the day they are likely tired from the day’s activities.
This can aggravate the symptoms of the diseases, making them more anxious and stressed. Before the onset of these diseases, this time of day would have typically been the busiest for them. They would be getting home from work, getting ready for dinner, doing household chores, and going to bed. Now that they’re unable to do those things, they have little to do at a time that was the busiest of the day for them.
The most common sleep disorder that occurs with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease is an irregular sleep-wake rhythm. You can see in the graph above how disruptive this rhythm is and why our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s can be so tired, in general, all the time.
However, I believe the most damaging effect of this sleep pattern is that it actually prevents the restorative/repair functions that occur during a normal sleep rhythm, which exacerbates the neurological damage that dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease do to the brain. In short, this sleep pattern makes the diseases worse.
The most effective – and safe – way to try to minimize an irregular sleep-wake rhythm is to add melatonin to nighttime medications. As I’ve said before, up to 12 mg of melatonin is considered safe, but start with a low dose (3 mg or 5 mg) and give it time to see if that gives our loved ones more continuous and restful sleep. The goal is to keep them asleep at night and keep them awake during the day. Too much melatonin can have them sleeping all the time.
I would also suggest keeping our loved ones active and busy – as they are able – during the day (I will talk more about this in another post, but will briefly touch on it here). Up until the last week and a half of my mom’s life, when she’d had the major heart attack and just couldn’t do much with me, I had her help me with the household chores that she could like making the bed, folding laundry, preparing meals, and helping me with the dishes.
I didn’t care whether it was perfect or not (initially a big challenge to my normal OCD about those kinds of things), but I found that the more she did, the better she felt and the better she slept.
There is a sleep disorder that is specific to Lewy Body dementia and is one of the primary symptoms of that form of dementia. It is called R.E.M. sleep behavior disorder.
R.E.M. sleep behavior disorder is impossible to miss. Anytime a sufferer is asleep, they are in motion acting out their dreams and, at least in my mom’s case, having sometimes understandable and sometimes not in-depth conversations. It is also characterized by “picking” at clothing or bedclothes while asleep.
On the one hand, at least for me, it was quite fascinating to watch Mom dream and act out her dreams. Apparently – and I’ve seen this with other Lewy Body dementia sufferers, so it must be common for all of us to dream about – she dreamed quite often about food, because she’d often make the motion of either eating with a utensil or with her hands to her mouth. That was usually when she was napping during the day.
Most of her conversations occurred at night, although occasionally she’d say a line or two during a daytime nap. And they’d last all night sometimes.
Her nightime dreams also included a lot of moving around and possibly a version of restless legs syndrome (not uncommon for R.E.M. sleep behavior disorder).
While I know this had a detrimental effect on her quality of sleep, it was disruptive for me too. I have always been a light sleeper and have had my own issues all my life with not sleeping much (and sometimes not sleeping at all for a day or two) and not getting quality sleep (waking up a lot or being wide awake in the early morning hours and not being able to go back to sleep for an hour or two). With Mom talking and moving around all night, it made sleep that much more difficult for me.
An increase in melatonin helped with this as well. I bumped her up to 7 mg each night (she was at 5 mg before) and it was just enough to keep most of the symptoms at bay. There were still some nights when it was noticeable, but the worst of the symptoms seemed to be alleviated. And because she slept better, she felt better and did better during the daytime.
I hope this brief overview helps. If you have any questions or any topics you would like to see discussed here, leave me a comment or email me at goinggentleintothatgoodnight.com. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll do my best to try to find it.
You’re not alone and my intent and goal is to keep reminding you of that and help you as much as I am able.