How can I ease Mom's fear of dying?

A fellow caregiver asked...

I have been caring for my mother for the last seven years. She lives with my husband and me and she has Alzheimer's. In the last month, I have seen an almost daily deterioration in both her body and her mind. Today she told me, with tears in her eyes, that she was just scared to death about everything. When I got up the courage, I asked her if what she was really afraid of was dying and she said yes. All I could do was hug her and tell her I wouldn't let anyone or anything hurt her if it was in my power at all. I felt like this relieved her mind a little but not a lot. Has anyone had this happen with someone they are caring for? Is it normal for those with Alzheimer's to feel like this and is it normal for anyone to feel like this... terrified they will die. It kills me to know she's scared and I need to know how to handle this in a way that will give her the most comfort. Thank you in advance for any advice anyone can give me.

Expert Answer

Ron Kauffman is a certified senior advisor (CSA), senior lifestyle radio host, syndicated newspaper columnist, and the author of Caring for a Loved One With Alzheimer's Disease. In addition, Kauffman is also the primary caregiver for his mother, who has Alzheimer's.

Let me begin by saying that your devotion to your mother over the past seven years, in the face of such a debilitating disease is extraordinary and commendable. It's not easy watching anyone slip by inches into the abyss of memory loss as a victim of Alzheimer's disease.

One aspect of Alzheimer's disease is that patients see themselves losing control, and what was at one time easy to rationalize or understand, becomes over time, confusing and often times very frightening. Therefore, when your mother said she was ""¦scared to death about everything"¦." She was doing her best to convey to you the truth about her loss of ability to resolve the stress of living with the disease.

Your response to her was very acceptable. And it is likely that you will have to face your mother's concerns again, when she repeats, as Alzheimer's patients do, that she is fearful of everything. However, I have a suggestion as to how you might better handle that statement.

Rather than assuming that it is, in fact, dying that scares her, respond to her statement of fear by asking, "Mom, what is it that you're afraid of?" Alzheimer's patients are easily redirected, and easily lead to conclusions by words they hear from those they know and love. So when you said, "Are you afraid of dying?" she may or may not have had that at the top of her list, but your placing that topic at the top gave her an easy way to respond, by just saying yes.

It's extremely important for you to know that your response to your mother when she did tell you she was afraid of dying, was very appropriate and an excellent way to give your mother what she was really asking you for when she said, ""¦yes." Reassurance - more on that in a moment.

In the future, if mom makes those types of statements of feelings, take a moment to gently probe for a specific feeling that has her tearful or upset. Is she scared? Unhappy? Missing her deceased husband or other loved ones and just feeling melancholy? As you can imagine, that list is rather lengthy. But rather than assume that it is death that is troubling your mother, ask her. If she can communicate adequately, do your best to find out the underlying cause for her feelings.

Once you do that, your basic response is the one you've already used. Hug her, tell her you love her, and assure her that you'll be there to make sure that whatever it is that has her concerned at that moment won't come to pass because you're there to care for her.

Now back to the concept of reassurance. All of us, from little babies who respond to their mother's faces, smiles and cooing, to teenagers who are unsure of themselves and occasionally act out to get attention, to insecure marriage partners to adult children caring for their aging parents and the seniors themselves, we all want to feel loved.

With Alzheimer's patients, constant reassurance and acts of hugging and hand-holding along with words of love can assuage most of their emotional concerns. For problems like pain or depression, words will have to be augmented with assistance from the patient's physician, often in the form of a prescription drug that will relieve the physical symptoms.

You did great! You gave your mother exactly what she was asking for at that time. Just like a little child who says she's afraid of the dark. You hug her, tell her you love her, and assure her that you're here to make certain that nothing bad will happen to her. Congratulations, you seem to be a natural at caregiving.