In previous posts, we’ve looked at how life experiences and personality, quirks, foibles, and flaws factor into dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease with our loved ones.
In this post, we’re going to discuss how temperament factors into these neurological diseases and how we as caregivers can respond effectively and lovingly to provide balance and still meet the basic needs that our loved ones’ temperaments require.
For the purpose of this discussion, we will look at the big picture of temperaments and the two most dominant categories that each of us falls into: extraversion and introversion.
There are 16 distinct variations of these two temperaments (eight in extraversion and eight in introversion). (You can take free temperament test online to see which variation your temperament is.)
All of us fall into one of those 16 variations (for example, I have always and continue to test out as an INTJ). How we fall into them is what makes each of us unique (for example, I range between 92% and 100% for introversion every time I take the test and I suspect that variation depends on the amount of recharging solitude I have immediately had when I take the tests).
Temperaments are, in my view, a function of genetics. In other words, it’s hardwired in us before birth by DNA (nature).
Unlike other things about humans that are more fluid and can change over time, there is little to no effect from external influences that alters our temperaments.
Extroverts in a family that is more introverted don’t become more introverted, no matter how much pressure, spoken or unspoken, is applied to make them less social and more quiet.
By the same token, introverts born into a family (and into the Western world that places a very high value on extraversion) that is more extroverted don’t become more extroverted.
If anything, extroverts and introverts become even more extroverted or introverted because of the pressure applied because it conflicts with who they are at a very core level.
Whether our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s are introverts or extroverts will be a factor in both behavior and socialization as they go through the journey of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease as well.
But equally important is whether we as caregivers are introverts or extroverts and how we may need to step outside our natural dominant temperament characteristic to ensure the needs of our loved ones are met.
Extroverts with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease will continue to crave being social and being with and around people on a regular basis. However, because as neurological changes progress, it is not uncommon to see increased conflicts in social situations (arguing, verbal fighting, anger, etc.) or exaggerated – and sometimes inappropriate – efforts to be the center of attention.
Introverts with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease will become even more introverted as neurological damage progresses. They will tend to isolate themselves as completely as possible, become completely withdrawn, even from loved ones, and often become completely uncommunicative before they actually lose the ability to speak and communicate.
Neither of these scenarios is good for our loved ones, so it is incumbent upon us as caregivers to try to achieve and maintain as much of a healthy balance for them to meet their needs as is feasible and possible.
In my opinion, this is one of the hardest areas to negotiate effectively and well, and it also requires the most finesse and empathy.
This is especially true if our loved ones and we have different temperaments.
My mom and I were good examples of almost diametrically opposite temperaments. Mama was an ENFP and I am an INTJ. We both had intuition (N) in common, but we were total opposites in every other way, temperamentally.
From day one of our lives together, these differences in our temperaments were a constant source of clashes and contention between us, especially in the early years. Mama would push me continually to be more extroverted and I would push back equally or more tenaciously against it.
Mama would cajole, threaten (and usually follow through because punishment was a better option for me than doing something I could not abide the thought of doing), plead, try to reason, and try to entice me to be more extroverted in a social and a public sense. It never made sense to her that it was agony for me and it literally drained me of all energy and patience.
Ironically, neither my mom and dad (who was also more extroverted than I was, but was an INFJ, so he understood me somewhat better) stopped me at home when I would go off by myself to be by myself, just to get away from everyone else when I was younger and to read, draw, or write when I was older.
But they were both concerned about my lack of desire and enthusiasm to engage in group social activities and to spend a lot of time with other people doing “fun” things. I’m sure there were many bedtime discussions between my parents about me and whether this was normal or was cause for concern.
But eventually, we all sort of adapted (Mama never completely quit trying to push me toward a more extroverted temperament, but when I would finally have a meltdown of yelling and tears in frustration – and sometimes from too little solitude too often – Daddy would intervene and persuade Mama to give me some breathing room and let me regroup, which always worked) and we figured out how to live with and love each other in spite of our differences.
As Mama’s cognitive impairment worsened over the last eight years of her life, she continued to be social and seek social activities and environments. However, as the neurological damage deepened with her, the level and number of conflicts with other people increased.
In the year and a half before Mama was diagnosed with mid-to-late stage vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, Mama’s relationships with everybody – including me – were much more contentious and much less harmonious.
On a daily basis, Mama would tell me about some dust-up with somebody. Mama had always been a bit on the scrappy side – not in a negative way, but she wasn’t afraid to take people on if they were wrong or she was protecting herself or her loved ones – but she also, because of her intuition, was able to see even the orniest of people objectively and still manage to interact in a positive way, for the most part, with them.
However, as Mama’s paranoia increased, her objectivity decreased and she began to see just about everyone in a more sinister light and as potential enemies. As a result, her social interactions, which she craved, became increasingly tense and hostile.
Just before Mama’s diagnoses and the medications that would balance out the most extreme aspects of the behaviors associated with dementias, Mama exhibited the behavior of an introvert like me.
With a profound hearing loss, Mama depended on hearing aids to connect with the world. Mama would always put her hearing aids on very soon after waking up in the morning so she didn’t miss anything.
In the few months before the inevitable crash that landed her in a geriatric psychiatric hospital, Mama often wouldn’t put her hearing aids in until late in the morning or early in the afternoon.
Mama also started isolating herself, spending the majority of the day in her apartment alone except for the time I spent with her each day.
As I went through her desk and computer when I was trying to make sense of where we were and what I needed to do when she hospitalized, I found that she’d spent a lot of time trying to write, either longhand or on the computer, and as I went through everything, I could see evidence everywhere of steep neurological decline.
It alarmed me to see the rapid progression over a few short months. I can only imagine how much more it must have frightened Mama because she didn’t know what was happening and yet she was aware that everything seemed to be quickly slipping away.
The right combination of medications brought Mama back to her true temperament and it was a relief to me and, I suspect, a relief to her as well.
She was once again involved in a lot of social activities during the day and not only did Mama thoroughly enjoy them, but other people thoroughly enjoyed her (she’d always been the life of the party and a welcome addition to any social gathering).
I made sure to encourage as much social interaction as Mama was up to and I made sure that whatever she needed to be a part of those activities she had. I would often join her in some of them, in spite of my natural aversion to that, because I knew Mama liked having me there with her and I knew that my being there made Mama feel safe.
When Mama came home to live with me, I had to continue to go outside my comfort zone to make sure she had enough social activity and interaction to thrive with her temperament. And, while it was hard at times on me, I never regretted doing that for her.
As the end of Mama’s life was drawing near and she began not knowing who I was on a regular basis and was often unable to recognize people she had known for a long time, I began to cocoon us.
The reasons were because it bothered Mama when she didn’t know people and, because they were strangers, Mama would get fearful (except for me – even when she didn’t know me, she wasn’t afraid of me and she felt safe with me).
So I began keeping the number of people with whom Mama and I interacted small and consistent so that the odds were good that Mama would remember them and so that she would not be scared.
To this day, I struggle with whether I did the right thing by Mama by doing this.
Logically, I know it was the absolute right decision because I didn’t want Mama to feel unsafe or scared.
But emotionally I question whether I should have taken the chance that Mama might have a good day and be glad to see longtime friends.
I still don’t know the answer. That will be just one more of those lingering questions that I’ll probably revisit with no resolution until the day I die.