6 Timely Things to Know If Your Mom Has Alzheimer's


If your mom has Alzheimer's disease, Mother's Day, other holidays, and her birthday can be bittersweet. It's hard enough to watch your mother get older. Being an eye-witness to a brain-altering disease can also try your patience and break your heart.

Some gentle reminders:

1. Don't contradict her.

Mom may not always know best. Mom may not always be right. Indeed, Mom may be quite out of touch with reality. But you'll only make her mad (or worse, make her feel sad) if you persist in correcting her mistakes or trying to reason with her.

Dementia robs the ability to be logical. For some people, impaired thinking skills lead them to "fill in the gaps" between confusion and reality with false beliefs (delusions). It's not her fault, and you'll never win. Besides, as a mother myself, I like to think that "don't contradict mom" is rock-solid advice generally.

2. Speak her body language.

Even without dementia, up to 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. Smile. Sit close. Use your outstretched hand to beckon her, and hold it as you walk together.

Dementia sometimes turns once-standoffish personalities warmer and fuzzier, so even if your mom was never a hugger, she might be more receptive now. Try a "seven-second Alzheimer's hug," which is a little longer than usual so your gesture gets a chance to register.

3. Meet her where she is.

Interacting with someone who has Alzheimer's can be befuddling, even when it's someone you've known, well, forever! What do you say? What should you do? Why is she acting this way? No wonder many family members stay rooted in denial or pick a lot of fights.

The best advice I've ever heard on how to deal comes from Bob DeMarco, a Florida caregiver who took care of his mother, Dotty, who had Alzheimer's. In an interview excerpt from my book Surviving Alzheimer's, Bob describes how he learned the hard way to "step into Dotty's world," or "Alzheimer's world," as he now refers to this sea-change in thinking on his popular website Alzheimer's Reading Room.

It's like going from the black-and-white, tornado-tripped parts of The Wizard of Oz into Technicolor: Much nicer, all around.

4. Keep giving cards.

She might not remember opening it five minutes later, but so what? What matters is delighting her in the moment. If you or someone else is on hand to open a digital card for her, consider creating a JibJab-style e-card where you insert your faces into funny animated songs. She'll be confounded and delighted to see the two of you dancing and singing up a storm together.

(Highly recommended for moms of every level of cognition, from new-mom fuzzy to old-mom weary!)

5. Keep giving gifts.

The good mood that pleasant experiences bring can persist far longer than the memory of the event.

A wonderfully underrated mom present: Shoes. Yes, shoes. Many older women tend to run their shoes into the ground, or cling to decades-old sizing and wear them too small, raising the risk of dangerous falls. Also, people with Alzheimer's tend to eventually shuffle, so thick-soled styles can catch in carpets. Nor do they go shoe-shopping on their own! Canvas sneakers make a perfect choice. They're breathable, flexible, low, secure, and wide soled. (And colorful, too; just ask Barbara Bush.) Some research shows they resulted in fewer falls than slippers, boots, sandals, high heels, or bare feet. Look for Velcro straps for ease. If she's a fashionista, you can also point out that canvas shoes are making a comeback. It's a rare woman who doesn't have a soft spot for new shoes -- and a rare older woman whose feet don't have a need for them.

Of course the very best present is your presence.

6. Never forget she's still your mama.

If she does something completely out of character (grouse, curse, put dirty dishes back on the shelves), she's still your mama. If she can't remember how to make your favorite dish, she's still your mama. Even if, incredibly, she doesn't seem to recognize you, she's still your mama.

I'm reminded of the classic children's book by Robert Munsch, Love You Forever. A new mother sings to her baby: "I'll love you forever I'll like you for always, as long as I'm living my baby you'll be." She repeats her lullaby even as he turns into a terror of a toddler and a surly slob of a teen. At the end, the boy, now a man, sings the same to her: "I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always, as long as I'm living my Mommy you'll be."

We change, yet we stay the same.

(Image: Four generations of my family -- I'm the brunette. My grandmother had Alzheimer's and my mom was her caregiver, as I noted in my last post.)