This article from Science Daily about verbal abuse and its negative influence on the quality of life among the elderly really struck a nerve in me. This is one of my soapbox issues about the care, the honor, the respect – and the increasingly appalling lack of it – we as a society give to the elderly among us.
The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is the one of the most pervasive lies that’s been perpetrated since it was first said in an old English nursery rhyme. The reality is that physical pain heals to one degree or another, but the pain of verbal abuse never heals. Words, once spoken, remain with us until we draw our last breaths.
Just because our loved ones may be experiencing dementias, Alzheimer’s Disease, or other age-related illnesses that impair them neurologically and/or physically does not mean they are oblivious or immune to the tone, the quality, and the veracity of our words.
I caught a lot of flak for that post and got a lot of excuses and justifications (just an FYI: if you have to make excuses and justify behavior, then it’s a good sign that it’s wrong and you know it’s wrong and you are consciously choosing to do what is wrong anyway) as to why being dishonest was okay.
It did not and does not change my position and the reality that being dishonest is not okay ever. Dishonesty is a moral failing at its core (we should strive never to be dishonest with anyone about anything), but it is an equally unacceptable form of verbal abuse for our loved ones suffering with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Dishonesty is just as much verbal abuse as yelling, demeaning, cursing, and talking about our loved ones as if they weren’t there. Even if they don’t understand the full meaning (and really, who knows how much intuition and understanding is there, but inaccessible in terms of articulation?), our loved ones still react to and fear verbal abuse. Just like each of us does.
Be kind. Be gentle. Put yourself in their shoes and ask “how would I want to be treated if this was me?” Be honest, but do it with love and tenderness. Let your tone always be one that comforts them. It takes effort. It takes self-control.
Sometimes it takes deep breaths and counting to whatever number you have to until you’re ready. That’s on each of us. Because we know better and can do better, while our loved ones don’t and can’t, especially with neurological deterioration.
I’ve been in enough nursing homes and assisted living facilities to see a lot of verbal abuse up close and personally.
It triggers a protective nerve in me that makes me want to go up to those who are doing it and say “You want to pick on someone? Bring it on. But don’t you EVER speak to any of these people, who could be your father, mother, grandfather, or grandmother like this!”
If I could save everyone who has ever experienced this at the hands of a caregiver, I would.
I can’t. But I urge all of us make sure we’re not guilty.
There is no cure for dementias or Alzheimer’s Disease. Once the journey begins, its course is downhill, sometimes gradually, sometimes rapidly, but always in decline.
There may never be a way to prevent these neurological diseases from occurring before the damage is done – I’m going through several neurology-related courses right now and the professors teaching these courses readily admit there is more about the brain’s chemistry, physical structure, communication systems, and function that is not known than is known – but once dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease have begun to damage the brain, there is no remedy.
The brain is a unique organ in the body in that once cells in the brain die, they do not regenerate themselves. They’re dead and gone.
The neurological damage of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease cannot be reversed.
So when Mama’s diagnoses came in late July 2010, I had a unique and personal perspective on what that meant for her and for me. “Mid-to-late-stage vascular dementia and mid-to-late-stage Alzheimer’s Disease” from the psychiatrist at the geriatric psychiatric hospital that Mama was in after her meltdown on July 10, 2010 didn’t surprise me. But I knew there was no cure, no going back, no fix.
I transitioned, probably more easily than most family members who hear this for the first time, to “what can we do to stabilize?” The psychiatrist assured me that stabilization was possible, but it would take time and tinkering with the medicines that the symptoms of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease demand.
I was almost convinced that nothing could turn around the psychosis that Mama was experiencing in full throttle in those days. I realized my own helplessness to help her and make it better for her. I experienced a lot of guilt and inner turmoil because nothing I was doing was working and I knew how much she was suffering and how afraid she was and it was all out of her control and my control.
I was also extremely sad. This was not the mama who had, with open arms along with my daddy, brought my sisters and me into their home through adoption, loving us with a fierceness and tenacity that we struggled with at times but also realized over time was the real deal. This was not the mama who opened her arms, her heart, her door to me when life was banging against me and threatening to destroy me. This was not the mama who put up with me and loved me in spite of myself, at times, unconditionally.
How could I not do the same for her after all she (and Daddy) had done for me? They loved me in spite of myself. How could I not love Mama in spite of herself? This was a no-brainer for me.
It was during the geriatric psychiatric hospital stay that I learned about many of the most-commonly-used medications used to control and improve the symptoms of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
All the medical professionals involved in Mama’s care were very careful to tell us repeatedly that the medications they were trying with Mama were controlling symptoms only.
I gave Mama Clonazepam only twice in two years (it knocked her out and I didn’t like the side effects, but it was for extreme agitation and there were only two times when she was agitated to the point of fearing for her heart health, that I decided to give it to her). The rest of this combination of anti-psychotic, anti-depression, anti-anxiety regimen gave Mama a better quality of life from near the end of July 2010 until her death on August 14, 2012.
With the exception of SeroquelXR.
Just after Thanksgiving 2011, Mama awoke one morning with tardive dyskinesia. At the time, I didn’t know what it was, but Mama was scared (and so was I as I watched the involuntary movements that rhythmically were going through her body).
I got Mama to the ER, where a nurse practitioner, who refused to listen to me (and the nurses who were with Mama and me and with whom we were talking to all day) for eight hours, was convinced that the tardive dyskinesia was Mama’s pacemaker going haywire.
So we waited all day in the ER for a cardiac consult that tested Mama’s pacemaker and confirmed it was working properly and not the problem (which I’d been telling the nurse practitioner all day because we’d just had it checked the week before).
Finally, the nurse practitioner decided to admit Mama, and late-stage tardive dyskinesia was diagnosed with the culprit being SeroquelXR.
Mama had Lewy Body dementia as well. It was not diagnosed (a firm diagnoses cannot be made without an autopsy of the brain, but symptoms are quite obvious while our loved ones are living), but I’d seen it, not knowing what I was seeing (I began researching it after Mama’s full-blown symptoms starting appearing in January 2012), just after Mama had gotten out of the geriatric psychiatric hospital when we were going to doctors’ appointments together.
Anti-psychosis drugs and Lewy Body dementia don’t mix well together. Mama was fortunate that she was able to stay on SeroquelXR as long as she was, and for that I am thankful. But we reached a point where we had to choose between mood and hallucinations/delusions.
I chose to help Mama with her mood. I knew I could handle hallucinations and delusions (although, in reality, what I thought I could handle still turned out to be surprising and perplexing, causing me to have to scramble to try to adjust with honesty and integrity even when things got way out of my comfort zone), but I could not handle Mama’s mood swings with these diseases.
So we (the hospitalist and I) went with Depakote Sprinkles (100 mg, 3 times a day – I could mix it with foods and drinks and make it easier for Mama to take) with the hospitalist telling me that Mama’s hallucinations and delusions would come back.
They did, but they were not particularly scary for Mama (I think because I was there), but they often threw me for a loop initially. I’m probably the least spontaneous person on the planet, so adjusting to these was particularly hard for me, but eventually, I got better at dealing with them and easing Mama’s mind. A new normal for both of us.
These medications that Mama was on are not the only ones used to treat the symptoms of dementias and Azheimer’s Disease, but they are the most common in the mid-to-late stages.
In the early stages, Aricept is commonly prescribed. From everything I have read and heard, it’s efficacy is limited. I believe that this is because by the time most people are diagnosed with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, they are already beyond the early stages of the diseases.
I would caution all of us as caregivers to make sure our loved ones are not over-medicated. Many of the anti-psychotics and anti-anxiety drugs can anesthetize our loved ones to an almost-coma-like state, which is not what we or they want or need.
We are their advocates. We are the only people who can fight for our loved ones medically. We have a responsibility to make sure our loved ones suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease have the best quality of life they can have for as long as they can have it. This is our obligation to them.
So unless anti-anxiety drugs are absolutely necessary and unless morphine and its derivatives and cousins are absolutely necessary, please don’t give them. They deprive our loved ones and they deprive us of quality time in the face of these terminal diseases. Nobody wants that.
There are medications that I haven’t talked about in this post. If you want to know about any medications that your loved ones may be taking, please comment here or email me at email@example.com. I’ve researched many, if not all, the medications used to deal with the symptoms of these diseases, so I’ll be happy to help you with any questions you may have.
I identified with this post in a way that I can’t really put into words, but I know two things specifically echoed my own experiences.
One was how our loved ones seem to become invisible as they lose their ability to recognize, communicate, and respond in tangible ways with most people. Touch, as the author points out, is huge. Hugs, kisses, putting my arms around her shoulders, and holding her hands a lot were how my mom and I stayed connected, more so after the dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, than before.
And the other is one that has long been a principle for me. Quantity (of life) doesn’t matter if there is no quality. It’s why I’ve had a no-extraordinatry-measures living will and DNR since I was in my early 20’s and why Mama did the same for herself after Daddy died.
Medicine can give us time, but it will never be able to give you the intangibles of “good,” “healthy,” “sound,” or “well.”