How do you keep mentally well while caring for a parent with Alzheimer's?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What can you do when your parents have Alzheimer's, which is getting worse, and you can barely visit them without feeling sick afterwards? I know I need mental support but no therapist will listen to all I need to say. I feel like I can't deal with this anymore. I have to organize bank documents for my eldercare attorney and I am falling apart and feeling very depressed.

Expert Answer

Kenneth Robbins, M.D., is a senior medical editor of Caring.com. He is board certified in psychiatry and internal medicine, has a master's in public health from the University of Michigan, and is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current clinical practice focuses primarily on geriatrics. He has written and contributed to many articles and is frequently invited to speak on psychiatric topics, such as psychiatry and the law, depression, anxiety, dementia, and suicide risk and prevention.

I am so sorry to hear that both your parents have Alzheimer's Disease. As you have experienced, grieving is an ongoing process through this illness, because the person with the illness slowly slips away. It is important to recognize, however, the illness does not have to be a miserable experience for the person who has it. As this disease progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember the past or anticipate the future, so one must live in the moment. This can actually be a gift, as long as there are enjoyable and meaningful moments. It may give you some solace if your parents are able to remain comfortable, but you still need assistance with your grieving.

It sounds important for many reasons that you get help with the emotional toll this experience has taken on you. There are several places you could get such help. First, I would strongly recommend you participate in support groups for family members at your local Alzheimer's Association. This can help you get ideas about what has helped others going through similar experiences and give you a chance to talk about some of your own challenges. I can't tell from your note whether you have already met with a therapist, but I would also strongly recommend you get an evaluation from an experienced mental health professional at this time. When grieving reaches such an intensity that you are unable to manage your day to day activities, it is important to get such help. You could get assistance finding the right person from your primary care physician, friends or family you trust or you could ask for suggestions at the Alzheimer's Association. It may be you have a serious depression that would improve dramatically with proper treatment, and/or it may be you need help talking through the various issues weighing you down. A good mental health professional can help you either way and they will be very interested in what you have to say. If you already tried meeting with a mental health professional and did not find them helpful, I would suggest you get a good recommendation and try it one more time. Different mental health professionals can have very different skills and approaches.

There are a number of other things that can be very helpful at such times of great stress. These include regular exercise, a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding alcohol and other mood altering drugs, doing your best to follow your usual routine and keeping in touch with your social supports. If you have siblings, a significant other or other close relatives, they are likely struggling as well and this is a time to try to reach out and do your best to support each other. If you participate in an organized religion, this is a time where clergy can provide you comfort. It is also a good idea to try to spend some time each day with activities you would usually enjoy. During this difficult time, you may not be able to enjoy them to the same extent you have in the past, but hopefully they can still provide you some relief.