“I, Rose, take you, John, to be my lawfully wedded husband, to have and hold, from this day forward, for better and worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.”

For many, those vows that they took fifty years ago are at the forefront of their minds when determining how to care for their spouse or partner with Alzheimer’s disease. But often, it is not an easy engagement. Caring and aiding for a spouse or partner with Alzheimer’s can range from a minor thud in the road during the early stages to a mountain of challenges in the middle and later stages.

How the A-Disease Challenges a Marriage

When Alzheimer’s disease or dementia occurs, roles begin to change. What may have been a life-long friendship and partnership may now mirror more of a parent-child relationship. In some relationships, the person with Alzheimer’s accepts the guidance of his spouse. This leads to becoming willingly dependent on her for direction. In others, resentment and anger develop because she is “telling him what to do.”

Sometimes, the most challenging aspects of caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s are the challenging behaviors and personality changes that can come with the disease. Your loved one may become aggressive and combative when trying to help or suddenly accuse you of being insensitive for no reason.

5 Tips in Supporting Your Spouse with Alzheimer’s

Spousal caregivers need to maintain their health to prevent such problems. Taking care of your health can improve your capacity to help your partner. Here are five ways to support a spouse with Alzheimer’s.

Tip #1: Sense of Humor. Research has shown that laughter can soothe the mind, heart, and body. Use it frequently. You are not laughing at your loved one with Alzheimer’s; instead, you might laugh together at the funny things that occur. Or, you might use a previously shared joke or familiar phrase to lessen the tension. This is true for Jack D. Weaver and his wife Janey (who has Alzheimer’s) as what has been transcribed in Jack’s book, “Going…Going…The Abduction of a Mind” is a journal of the couple’s fifteen-year journey of Alzheimer’s. It will lead you through sunny valleys of hope, into swamps of despair, and up mountains of happiness; you will stop at vistas of grief and relief and laugh and cry together. 

Tip #2: It’s Not You; It’s the Disease. One of the essential keys for coping with these challenges is to constantly remind yourself that those complicated things are the disease displaying itself, not your spouse. Those hurtful comments she now makes then become less spiteful because you know they are coming from her dementia, not her heart.

Tip #3: Maintain an emotional connection. As the disease develops, this may change how you and your spouse relate to each other. You may need to find different ways to express your feelings, but Alzheimer’s does not change a person’s need for affection and love. Sometimes, it is the small things. Wink at her across the room, hold his hand or share a chocolate milkshake. Kiss her and tell her she is beautiful. If it is too hard to go out to his favorite restaurant on your anniversary, perhaps you can have it brought to you.

Tip #4: Take care of yourself. The Alzheimer Society of Canada’s guide to self-care for the caregiver includes a caregiver stress test. If you exhibit telltale warning signs, ask family, friends, or counselors for support and help. Also, take advantage of programs that provide relief and respite from caregiving, practical help with housework or meals, and help with the care of your spouse.

Tip #5: Support your spouse’s independence. An individual in the early stages of dementia may need a reminder to help with memory. Help your spouse with reminders to take medications as prescribed, keep appointments, and recall familiar names and people in social situations.

It is expected (and very typical) for a couple to be challenged by the changes that dementia causes. Being intentional with responding and knowing what to expect can alleviate this transition.