How can I help improve the life of my grandmother with dementia?

Raine71 asked...

Hi everyone.... my question is about my 89 year old grandmother. Ive no idea where she is on the dementia/alzh. spectrum, but I am sure she is on the list someplace. The first thing that struck me as odd, was a few years before my grandfather died, whenever we would go for a drive, ( even in the very same same small town they have lived in for 30 years) grampa would discreetly tell grama- "ok, get into the right lane... now turn right up here... ok now left lane..... go on, move over, ya gotta turn left up here" I thought this was strange, and when asked why he did this, grampa said " cuz she forgets where shes going" I dont think he was hiding anything, cuz he would tell us the truth when asked, but he sure didnt advertize it. (loyalty, hu?)anyway... he died in '08 and its gotten worse for grama since. she is bitter, angry, depressed, just sits on the couch and mopes and stares into space all day.... she is mixing up life events- like she will say that years ago she had radiation and went bald. ( she recently had radiation, but has never had it b4.) i told her it doesnt make you bald, chemo does. she said she went bald with radiation b4. The REAL story is, I went to go visit her and grampa after my daughter was born. one night while there, I washed my hair in the sink, and a TON of my hair fell out! ( I had a really tuff pregnancy and lost 48 pounds, but thats another story. the hair fell out from hormones and lack of nutrition but it grew back, all is well) but at the time it was so bad ( and me with long hair) so i went and got it chopped in a pixie cut so it wouldnt lok so stupid with big bald patches. Now, grama is saying SHE went bald. sigh plus, she has at times forgotten her daughters name, grand daughters names, and has this mega repetitive thing going on. she will ask 7 or 8 times the same question, and only realises shes doing it when ppl say " YES grama, its STILL SUNDAY........." anyway- I read one post about a person whos loved one said thier legs would go wobbly or mushy, or whatever. My grama has said this for a few weeks now and wont go see the dr. my mom thinks its muscular atrophy from sitting on the couch all day. has anyone else loved one said thier legs go to mush, or wont hold them up? like weak/unstable legs??? is this muscular atrophy or a symptom of the disease? grama wont live in assisted living, wont live in ahome and wont live with her children or grandchildren. well, right now, she lives with her grand daughter in law ( and they do NOT get along.... even b4 all this happend they used to butt heads for decades) and now she is miserable, wont leave there to live here but would prefer to just stay in misery. I hate to watch my poor grama fail this way- she was good to me when I was young and I would like to do whatever I can to make this as easy and peaceful for her as her final years on this earh SHOULD be. I am SO sad. breaks my heart. she was the mother to me that my own mother never was. I feel so helpless. hints? tips? virtual hugs? :'(

Expert Answer

Brenda Avadian, brings knowledge, hope, and joy to family caregivers for loved ones with Alzheimer's and dementia. She cared for her father with Alzheimer's and helps families one-on-one and in groups. She is the author of eight books, including the pioneering memoir "Where's my shoes?" My Father's Walk through Alzheimer's and the Finding the JOY in Alzheimer's series. She presents vivid, compelling, and funny keynotes to both professional and family caregiving audiences.

Improving the life of a person with dementia is a challenging yet noble task.

What makes it particularly challenging is you write that your grandma is unhappy and doesn't want to live with her family; yet she is miserable, angry, and depressed.

This is the saddest of situations because, unless our loved ones have given power of attorney to someone or are under the care of a guardian or conservator, they have the right to make their own decisions. Even with these legal rights, a caregiver can only do so much until force becomes necessary.

Since, this breaks your heart; especially, since she was so good to you and you'd like to see her live her final years in peace, I suggest the following:

  • When she gets confused about dates or the details of an event, try not to correct her. Simply go along with her reality. Trying to bring her into your reality will only create more stress for her and you.

  • When she repeats questions, answer each as if it's the first time she asked it. People living with dementia and Alzheimer's often repeat questions because they truly forget the answers. As irritating as it can be for caregivers to hear the same question again and again, if we want to provide care with compassion, we must assure them that we have the answers that they have now lost.

There are many possible reasons why she is feeling down"”she's lost without her life-long companion, she feels she's living in a foreign world (imagine how much the world has changed since she was your age), and she feels lost in her own world trying to remember what's real and what's not. On top of this, you say she is suffering from "wobbly legs" or muscular atrophy. These symptoms are best evaluated by a qualified physician as they could be due to among other things, a urinary tract infection (UTI), dehydration, medications, the progression of her dementia, or as you mention, sitting too much.

  • I strongly recommend you have her seen by a doctor"”preferably a geriatrician who specializes in the diseases of the elderly. Brainstorm with your family how you will persuade her to go. But, it's my feeling that a doctor may be able to help her with her depression, which will only spiral downward if left alone. Additionally, after an assessment you may learn what is going on with her legs.

Being involved in her life is important. Supporting her and helping your grandma feel comfortable and loved is all you can do.