How can I calm down someone with Alzheimer's when they're crying?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother has Alzheimer's and has been crying a lot. My father is unable to calm her down when the crying spells begin. What can we do to help her with the emotions behind the tears?

Expert Answer

Beth Spencer is a social worker in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with more than 25 years of experience with families who have a member with dementia. She is coauthor of Understanding Difficult Behaviors and Moving a Relative with Memory Loss: A Family Caregiver's Guide. Previously, she directed Silver Club, early-stage and adult day programs serving individuals with Alzheimer's disease and related illnesses.

I think there are two issues here – the emotions behind the tears and an evaluation for depression. Constant crying is very often a sign of depression which affects people with Alzheimer’s at a higher than average rate. If the person had diabetes, we would treat that. With depression, we should also treat it. So the first step is to ask her physician to evaluate her for depression or, a better solution, to send her to a specialist for such an evaluation, which could be a neuropsychologist, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. Very often when depression is being treated, a person with Alzheimer’s becomes much better able to function and enjoy life again.

With regard to the emotion behind the tears, I usually speak to it directly. I might say, “You seem very sad. Can you tell me what you are sad about?” Give her the opportunity to voice her feelings, if she is able to articulate it. Sometimes people can no longer find the language they need to express what they feel. Then I might say, “It seems like it is hard for you to talk about this. Just know that we love you and care about you.” Simply give her some support verbally and physically as best you can.