How to Cope With Feelings of Grief After a Parent's Dementia Diagnosis

It can be hard to come to terms with a parent's age-related memory loss. It can be even more challenging  to grieve an elder's Alzheimer's dementia diagnosis.

There's no getting around it: An Alzheimer's diagnosis is always a fatal one. There's no known cure. There's no way to stop the disease in its tracks.

Various memory care methods might be useful in slowing the progression of a loved one's Alzheimer's dementia, but results are hit-or-miss in many cases. There can be periods of prolonged stability, followed by periods of rapid decline.

It's heartbreaking to watch a loved one's decline, and the unpredictable nature of the disease can be emotionally and spiritually draining. So, where can family caregivers find support? How can you cope?

Today, we'll discuss several coping methods recommend for caregivers when they are grieving an Alzheimer's diagnosis in an elderly loved one. We'll call your attention, too, to some of the caregiving and memory support resources available to your family here in the Cincinnati area.

Be cognizant of your grief process.

Most people expect to go through the stages of grief when a loved one passes away, or when a romantic relationship comes to an end. Fewer understand that they are likely to go through a grieving process when a loved one falls ill.

It makes sense if you think about it: Alzheimer's dementia robs your loved one of the ability to communicate with you in the manner you're both accustomed to.

It can seem like your loved one is mentally gone before he or she is physically gone, so it's natural that you would grieve as if he or she were already gone.

But there are ways to communicate with your loved one, even in Alzheimer's most advanced stages. It takes a lot of trial and error, and it requires patience, but you can learn your older parent's "caregiving language" — akin to Dr. Gary Chapman's 5 Love Languages — and maintain your bond.

As you do, you should also learn about your own grief language: the methods by which you express your grief, and in which you understand others' expressions of grief.

Here are several coping methods you should try.

Memory care experts and therapists alike agree that the following are helpful in dealing with your grief.

  • Acknowledge and accept your feelings.
    When your loved one has dementia, it's normal for you to feel all sorts of negative emotions: sadness, anger, frustration, guilt, even emptiness or numbness.

    It's OK for you to feel those things. Allow yourself to. If you do and accept that they will crop up, it's easier to face and overcome them.

  • Expect setbacks.
    Sometimes, if you assume setbacks will happen, you'll be pleasantly surprised when better things happen, and you'll be able to enjoy the good times even more. And we don't just mean setbacks in your loved one's mental status. We mean disturbances in your emotional status, too.

    Again, allowing yourself leeway to feel negative emotions will help you to work through them, rather than letting everything build up to the point that you explode or shut down.

  • Recognize that your grief process will be unique to you.
    No two people experience grief in exactly the same way. Others might be able to understand that you feel grief, but remember, they don't know exactly what you feel. But that's something that, in and of itself, could help you.

    Because a licensed therapist can't feel the grief you feel, he or she can serve as an objective, non-judgmental sounding board for you. Consulting with one could help you see clearly even when intense emotions threaten to blind you.

  • Reach out to others.
    Try attending Episcopal Retirement Services' monthly caregiver support group. Attend another dementia caregiving support group here in Cincinnati.

    Join an online caregiver support forum. Talk with your family and friends. Don't be afraid to ask other people to let you lean on their shoulders for a while. Because, believe it or not, talking can help. Hugs can help. Shared tears can help.

    No, they won't cure your elder loved one's dementia. But they will remind you that you're not alone in this and help you to let a little bit of air out of your emotional balloon.

  • Remember to care for yourself, too.
    Many family caregivers devote their full attention to meeting their loved one's needs but neglect their own. That's noble and admirable in the short run; in the long run, it's detrimental to your mental health and to your loved one's continued wellbeing. Set aside time for spiritual self-care and rest.

    If you feel like you don't have enough time to do that, you should definitely look into community-based resources — for example, temporary respite care admissions for your loved one, adult memory care day programs, or in-home nursing — that could alleviate some of the care burden you're under.