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Eliminate Behavioral and Verbal Hand Grenades in Our Relationships with Our Loved Ones with Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease – Part 1

verbal and behavioral hand grenades relationships dementias Alzheimer's DiseaseCommunication – verbal and behavioral – is the cornerstone of human relationships. It turns out, as all of us have no doubt discovered along the way, that we humans aren’t all that good at successfully communicating with each other all the time.

Admittedly, some of us are better – but not always – at communicating well and consistently with other humans than others of us are.

Our propensity toward communication difficulties leads to a lot of problems in the normal course of our relationships with others. Misunderstandings develop. Feelings get hurt. Relationships are ripped apart irreparably, at least for this lifetime.

However, for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, where executive function, cognition, and understanding are compromised by neurological deterioration, these communication difficulties are even more devastating and can often lead to extreme agitation, volcanic emotional outbursts, and inappropriate behavioral manifestations.

Psychoanalyst Trevor Mumby, who has spent his career looking for ways to communicate more effectively with those who have dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, has identified twelve areas of communication that are verbal and behavior hand grenades that can create emotional havoc with our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.

I submit that if we eliminated these communication hand grenades in all our relationships, we’d be taking a huge step forward in better communicating with other human beings.

In this post, we’ll look at the first six verbal and behavioral hand grenades of communication that we need to eliminate, and in the next post, we’ll look at the last six.

hand grenade dementia Alzheimer's DiseaseBeing opinionated.

Nothing gets emotional upheaval going in all of us like someone who is overbearing and knows everything about everything and will not stop pushing their opinions and their agendas over and over and over ad nauseum until everyone agrees (or just disappears by folding up within themselves and shutting down).

For our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, this communication hand grenade will evoke strong negative emotional and behavioral responses, ranging anywhere from being emotionally inconsolable to being physically violent.

hand grenade dementia Alzheimer's DiseaseInterrupting.

Even in normal communication, constantly being interrupted or cut off while trying to express something completely is aggravating.

I tend to take longer, verbally, to express myself because I’m not a natural ad hoc speaker and it’s out of my realm of capability and temperament to think out loud, process and talk concurrently, and be engaged in unedited conversation.

I find myself frequently on the receiving end of being interrupted because I pause a lot to try to find the right word, tone, meaning before I say it. My response to interrupting is to stop talking and avoid verbal communication with people I know will interrupt me.

In this area, I have a strong affinity with and empathy for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease who, because of often-extensive neurological damage to the speech and hearing pathways in the brain, struggle to understand what is being said and how to respond to it (I discuss understanding and successfully navigating communication difficulties comprehensively in Chapter 3 of my book, You Oughta Know: Acknowledging, Recognizing, and Responding to the Steps in the Journey Through Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease).

As a result, exaggerated pauses in speaking occur and it’s almost second-nature to interrupt and fill in the missing words and/or thoughts we think our loved ones are trying to say. And this can create extreme agitation and emotional upset because we are likely wrong in what we conclude they are trying to communicate and because we’re both being disrespectful to and taking away independence from our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.

hand grenade dementia Alzheimer's DiseaseProvoking.

This hand grenade can be both verbal and behavioral. Some people are unaware that they are provocating, while other people revel in it. My daddy, who didn’t like it any more than I do, used to call it “getting a rise out of someone.”

Verbal provocation is a conscious hand grenade. It is characterized by insistent, persistent, and increasingly abusive language toward someone else with the intended results being anger and fighting. Yep, there are actually people – and we all know them, unfortunately – who really enjoy doing this.

Behavioral provocation is usually an unconscious or unknown hand grenade. We all have things that we do and habits that we have that get on someone else’s last nerve, but oftentimes we have no idea that we’re provoking them in the process.

For our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, verbal and behavioral provocation can be a communication powder keg. We need to remember that the neurological damage in these diseases affects perception, reasoning, and understanding profoundly. We also need to remember that having dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease increases the fearfulness of our loved ones.

Therefore, verbal provocation, which can be threatening and scary to those of us who do not have dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, can create terror in our loved ones who do. And we all know that fear generates that adrenaline rush known as the “fight-or-flight” response.

Whichever of these gets triggered in our loved ones will be exaggerated. Evidence of this response can include frequent and uncontrollable agitation, constant pacing, increasing wandering with the intent of escape (outdoors), or fighting (hitting, biting, etc.) when they are provoked.

Behavioral provocation will most likely evoke anger and impatience in our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. This can escalate to physical violence in an attempt to stop the provoking behavior.

hand grenade dementia Alzheimer's DiseaseContradicting.

Another hand grenade is the habit of disagreeing with, arguing with, and contradicting everything the other person says. Part of what is behind this verbal and behavioral hand grenade is the need to be right all the time (insecurity and/or inflated ego are at work).

We all know people like this and I personally steer clear of them as much as I’m able. When I have to be around them, I get quiet and stay quiet and try to escape them as quickly as possible.

However, the hand grenade of contradiction is very damaging to our relationships with our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. Remember, these diseases, by their very nature, take sure knowledge away from our loved ones. It causes them to be tentative about everything because they don’t remember what they don’t remember.

Contradicting them on everything only adds to the tentativeness, the hesitation, the confusion and will eventually cause our loved ones to shut down and stop communicating altogether (you’ll note that this is not all that different than what I think most of us who don’t have dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease do only when we are around people who contradict us all the time) with everyone.

hand grenade dementia Alzheimer's DiseaseExpecting gratitude.

Let’s face it. Most of life is a pretty thankless task. However, part of human relationships is doing what you are able for others when you are able because it’s the right thing to do.

If we expect gratitude all the time, then the motive behind what we do is selfish and self-centered: we want recognition, we want praise, we want our egos stroked. In essence, our actions and words are all about us and never about those for whom we do or give them.

For people who expect the limelight all the time for all they do and say, we find that they will stop doing for and saying things to the people who don’t feed their egos with lavish praise and fawning gratitude. They basically just cut those people out of their lives.

Not expressing gratitude consistently among our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease is part of the neurological disease process. Remember that the brain is where the concept of thankfulness and gratitude are formed. As the brain deteriorates, concepts and ideas, which are high-level executive functioning, begin to disappear to one degree or another.

If we are expecting gratitude all the time, will we cut our loved ones out of our lives because they’re not meeting our expectations? Sad to say, this does happen. But shame on us if this is our motivation and our response.

hand grenade dementia Alzheimer's DiseaseTalking loudly.

Somehow all of us humans are innately wired to believe that if we just say something in a louder voice, it will be understood better by the person or people we are talking to.

Because my mom had a severe hearing loss most of her life, I saw this up close and personally with people who didn’t know her. Early in our childhoods, Mama explained that when people were talking to her she read their lips and that slowing down just a bit and enunciation, not volume, was the key to her being able to understand what was being said if she couldn’t hear it.

Even before her journey with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, she didn’t like to be around people who always talked loudly or people who talked loudly to her as a way of communicating with her.

And I’ve never been able to handle loud talkers either. It literally hurts my ears and I physically need to get away as quickly as I’m able when I’m around people who normally talk in a loud voice.

The same is true for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease (I’ve often wondered how much the double whammy was for Mama to have both a profound hearing loss and vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease – I really can’t imagine).

Volume in speech will not help them understand more or better what our loved ones have already lost in understanding and comprehension because of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. What it is most likely to do instead is make them fearful because they know the noise is loud, but they don’t know why.

As we talked about before, fear can produce intense agitation, continuous pacing, frequent wandering to escape, and, at its worst, physical violence in our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.

These are the first six verbal and behavioral hand grenades that we need to eliminate in our relationships with our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. The reality, though, is that we need to eliminate them in all our human relationships, so everybody on the planet could benefit from reading this series.

In the next post, we’ll discuss the last six verbal and behavioral hand grenades we need to eliminate.



The Implicit Agreement We Enter Into As Caregivers for Our Loved Ones with Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease

For many of us as caregivers for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, we choose to enter into the agreement to care for them willingly, without any compensation (we don’t expect it), aware that, in the majority of situations, we will carry the responsibility with little to no help from others and that it’s a lifetime 24/7 obligation that we’re inextricably bound to until our loved ones die. 

trust honesty integrity alzheimer's disease dementiaWe also enter into an implicit ethical agreement with our loved ones when we assume responsibility for their care. We promise implicitly that we will be honest and trustworthy, that we will be supportive, that we will be comforting, that we will be loving, and that our loved ones will want for nothing.

As our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease – parents, grandparents, etc. – did for us when we were babies and children, we promise that, with as much equanimity as possible, we will bear the burdens, carry the worries, handle the vacillations of change, and never abandon them. 

The way I always look at this is that our loved ones (our caregivers) when we were babies and children didn’t know what they were getting into. They could not have possibly imagined or dreamed the things we would say, we would do, and sometimes the trouble and mischief we could find without even trying.

And, yet, for most of us, they hung in there with us, even though it was sometimes hard, sometimes maddening, sometimes frustrating, and sometimes almost unbearable (especially in the teenage years). They didn’t put us away some place, complain about the fact that no one in their families was helping out, or scream and rant and rave about us to other people (well, maybe they did to our friends’ parents when they were alone and traded horror stories about all of us, but we never saw any of evidence of that in their treatment of us).

By agreeing to be caregivers for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, we agree to do for them what they did for us. To complete the circle of life as we switch roles with them as they begin their exit from the stage of life.

How well are we living up to our agreement in all the areas that we agreed to?

love dementia alzheimer's diseaseSometimes it’s necessary to just step back and evaluate the agreement we made, why we made it, and whether we are fulfilling the terms that we agreed to.

I know these diseases take a heavy toll on more than just our loved ones. I walked this journey side-by-side with my mama for several years, at first not realizing fully what Mama was experiencing, and then once I did, dealing with it and Mama according to the terms I’d agreed to.

I had my moments of anger, frustration, impatience, and fear, but overwhelmingly what I experienced was fierce protectiveness, deep compassion, strong empathy, and unconditional love. No matter what I was going through, I knew what Mama was going through was worse. The more fragile her own position became, the stronger mine became to be her comfort, her safety, and her rock – even if, at times along the way, she wasn’t, because her brain was betraying her, able to recognize that.

It was never about me. It was always about Mama. Keeping that at the front of my mind and heart at all times helped me be there 100% all the time to do whatever needed to be done to help her.

This is an imperative mindset for us as caregivers. It’s a rare mindset because it has largely disappeared in the general population that has wholeheartedly embraced the “it’s all about me” mindset.

We live in a society that has become increasingly self-absorbed, self-centered, selfish, and whiney when even the littlest of things don’t go our way. We live in a society that is easily offended and gets hurt feelings on the turn of a dime, that is quick to give up on things and people when the going gets a little rough, that is all too ready to walk away from anything that poses a threat to our comfort zone or might require a little extra work to sustain. (The irony is that this same society expects from us the things it is unwilling to be, do, or give.)

selflessness dementia alzheimer's diseaseBut, as caregivers, we have chosen to take the road far less traveled by. The one that says we’re in it for the long haul. The one that says our skins are thick enough that we learn not to take the effects that our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease exhibit personally. The one that says we love and we care to the end. The one that says we never walk away.

It’s not a road that many are willing or able to walk. But for those of us who have walked it and are walking it to the end, we find that the rewards and the lessons and the love we acquire as part of the journey are priceless. And our loved ones find in us relentless champions, unsung heroes, faithful friends, and beloved spouses, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews who show them we love them by who we are and what we do.

So let’s never forget the promises we made, the pledges that we made, the trust, integrity, and honesty that we committed to be worthy of when we chose to care for our loved ones. Always remember that they are counting on us to honor those and if we fail them, then who will step in and fill the gap?

What Not to Say to A Caregiver of Our Loved Ones With Dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease

While this article gives brief explanations of what and why you shouldn’t say certain things to caregivers of loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease (and any other chronic age-related illness), I would like to focus on being mindful of what we say to caregivers who are taking care of loved ones suffering from dementias, Alzheimer’s Disease, and/or other age-related illnesses. The human proclivity is to talk without thinking and my hope is that, with this post, we’ll all slow down, take a deep breath, and think before we speak.

As difficult as it may be to comprehend in our multitasking, “have-it-all, do-it-all,” split-second world, once we chose to become caregivers, our lives stop in many ways and we have a single focus: taking care of the loved one(s) entrusted to our care.

This has become an anomaly in our 24/7 digital, connected, always-on society. Personally, I believe it is why caregivers often find themselves alone in taking care of their loved ones. Siblings, friends, and other family just can’t slow down, disconnect, and, yes, sometimes, can’t be bothered with the labor and time-intensive task of caring for a loved one.

11-things-not-to-say-to-a-caregiverAgingcare.com posted a list of things not to say to caregivers of our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s disease.

I always add caveats to these black-and-white statements, so please know that I understand there are many circumstances, sometimes way beyond our control, to be an interactive part of the caregiving process.

What I am talking about here are the able, the capable, but the unwilling and unrelenting people within the circle of our lives who could, but won’t step up to the plate, but who often are our most vocal critics. 

But this post isn’t a diatribe against these people. There are  a lot of reasons for why, some of which I and all the other caregivers out there will never understand, and accepting that is part of building character. It is what it is. Anger, resentment, and bitterness don’t hurt anyone but us and our loved ones, so please don’t let any of these take root and let them become who we, as caregivers, are. 

This post is about what we all should be mindful of not saying to caregivers of loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, dementias, and/or other age-related illnesses. It is about thinking before we speak and putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It is about sensitivity, care, concern, and love.

Most of the people who say some of these things listed in “11 Things You Should Never Say To a Caregiver,” have never been caregivers for loved ones and would never consider being caregivers because it would mean they would have to sacrifice their lives, give up what they want to do, put their own goals and ambitions aside – and risk losing their place and relevance in their careers, their social networks, their lives as they define them (and when a person makes the choice to be a caregiver to a loved one first and foremost, it dramatically, and not always positively, changes his or her life in all these areas both on a short-term and long-term basis).

I get that. Once upon a time in my own life, I was all about me, about my career, my success, my move up the corporate ladder. Every career move I made was a step forward, carefully planned (and blessed and allowed by God, much like Jacob in his life [reading through Genesis in the last week or so has made me realize how similar my view of myself is to Jacob’s view of himself until he hit critical mass and realized that he was the beneficiary of God’s blessings, much the same position I find myself in now]) even in spite of, many times, my arrogance and belief that it was all me – my talent and ability moving me ahead.

But always, and this was perhaps the thing that somehow, in spite of me, kept me grounded, I was deeply connected to love, responsibility, and obligation to my family, especially to my parents. Daddy and Mama sacrificed a lot to adopt us kids. They, in their own ways, both gave up more lucrative careers to build a family with us.

I bonded with these two people who chose me when they could have chosen anyone, and in spite of our rocky places, our mutual lack of understanding at times, our frustration with each other because we couldn’t find common middle ground at times, in the end, we loved each other unconditionally, and it was that unconditional love that tied us together no matter what.

So, when my time came around to complete the circle of life, I failed Daddy more than I failed Mama. I still, when Daddy was so sick, had not quite gotten beyond what I wanted and the idea that my life was all about me.

I will regret that the rest of my life and I will regret that I didn’t know what I didn’t know about what Mama was going through after Daddy died. But I didn’t know. Some lessons take time and they take longer to effect the changes that I wish could have happened sooner.

It didn’t then. It has now.

I’ve had to make a lot of peace with myself and with God (and, at times, still find myself making peace with myself and God as I realize where I let both Daddy and Mama down, unknowingly along the way) that I was younger and just didn’t get it the way it was back then. I did the best I could, although I wish I’d done better and more, in spite of the limitations of understanding, of experience, of knowledge I had then.

Time is both a curse and a blessing. In the middle of time, we don’t have a clue. We move through it blindly, occasionally having flashes of light and inspiration and understanding, but never really grasping it fully. After that time has passed, we have time to think, to reflect, to dissect, to analyze, and it is there that we gain wisdom, understanding, and often times, change for the better. It is never an easy process in either circumstance, but if we learn from it, then it brings about permanent and positive changes.

 A few months before Daddy died, he and I sat down, face-to-face, at the kitchen table thatMama and Daddy had been the gathering place for our family from my earliest memories. We held hands. He asked me to promise him that I would take care of Mama when he was gone. I promised him that I would.

I knew that day that Daddy didn’t have much time left. His heart function was very low and there were no options left for him to change that. It was the last time I would see him alive. He died about three and a half months after we had that conversation.

Daddy’s death was probably the beginning point of my stepping up to the caregiving role for Mama. There was a protectiveness for both of them that I’d had since I had graduated from college, gotten a job, and was in a position to help them through the rest of their lives, no matter how or where they needed the help.

After Daddy died, that protectiveness took hold much more deeply with regard to Mama. Something in me changed and I realized I was willing to do whatever it took to make sure Mama was okay, safe, secure, and comfortable. Although it took time for me to be willing to give up everything and make Mama the physical priority in my life (and I did), the root of that decision took hold the day Daddy died.

Along the way, after Daddy’s death and as Mama progressed with vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Lewy Body dementia, I heard many of the eleven things you should never say to caregivers.

Fortunately, by the time I heard them on a regular basis, my commitment, my focus, my life, on a physical level, was completely dedicated to Mama being where she wanted to be (and where I wanted her to be), which was at home with me, and I actually, once I got over the initial “how could you even say that?!?” reaction I always had, learned to just let it go.

In the end, when we come to these decisions and choices with our loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease and/or dementias, we have to get thick skins and realize that most of the things that people who have never been through this say are not malicious, not unkind, and not critical, but are simply a product of inexperience, ignorance (and I don’t mean that in a bad way – no one can know what they don’t know), and a lack of understanding. 

This, for me, was where I really learned about not being easily offended, about forgiveness, about compassion, and about mercy. Good lessons. I still have a lot to learn, but I’ve made progress.

So the list of what not to say is provided here as a guide, an educational tool, an effort on my part to offer experience to those who don’t have experience, to teach those who don’t know, to provide understanding those who may not understand.

It is not a criticism. It is not a condemnation. It is simply another step to bridge the gap, which this blog, in part, was created to do, so that we all know a little more, understand a little more, and can help a little more as we interact with those caregivers of loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease, dementias, and other age-related illnesses among our friends and our family.