You finally convince your spouse to go to the doctor with you. He's only in his late 60s, but lately he's been forgetting where his car keys are, losing words and getting lost when he goes out alone. You've been worried for a while, so you're relieved your spouse is willing to see a professional.
The doctor, a neurologist, is a tall, distinguished researcher in his late 50s. He wears a long, starched white lab coat and sits behind his cluttered desk. He tells your husband to remember three things: a ball, a toothbrush and a pen. You memorize them, hoping your brain is still working. Then he asks your husband to subtract seven from 100 and continue subtracting sevens down to zero if he can. Your husband says,"93, 82." What? You sit up straighter and try not to blurt "93, 86." Your husband was a math major in high school and studied engineering in college. He taught you calculus, but all of a sudden he doesn't know 93 minus seven is 86?
You start thinking about how you've been in denial about his dropping things and tripping around the house. Your husband can't remember the three things he was supposed to remember 10 minutes ago. You're glad you can, but your heart is beating too fast.
Finally the doctor looks sadly at you both and says to your husband: "I think you have dementia."
You say: "What can we do? Is there any medication that will ease the symptoms?"
His head is bowed as he starts writing on his prescription pad. "I'll give him two medicines, but honestly they won't do much good." You wish he wouldn't be so straightforward. It's painful.
You want to batter the doctor with questions because you know your husband has been given a death sentence, just like his father before him. You really want to yell: "No, God! Help us!" His father died after five intense years of suffering.
At this point, if you are to remain sane and emotionally strong, you must take a deep breath and not believe that you too have been given a death sentence. Here are five ways to keep yourself on track:
• Remember you are an individual and you are not your husband. Even if you have been together many years, you must now start separating emotionally. This is not an easy process, and it is best to begin it as soon as he gets the dementia diagnosis.
• Keep working and doing what you usually do, like exercising and maintaining friendships and other personal and professional relationships. Many spouses stop working and become full-time caregivers at this point. They isolate themselves from friends and family when they should reach out to others as much as they can. If you can afford it, start using nurse's aides to help you care for your loved one with dementia. I and many of my colleagues have found that spouses who dedicate themselves exclusively to caregiving have been found to get more illnesses themselves and to even die soon after their loved ones do.
• Don't underestimate how stressful it is to care for your loved one. Get help professionally -- either by joining a support group or getting individual psychotherapy.
• Reach out to as many family members as you can. If you have an extended family, get as many members involved as quickly as you can. If you don't, make new friends and solicit their help.
• Eat and sleep well. Both of these basic functions will be compromised by caring for your loved one with dementia. Also make sure that your mood stays positive. Many spouses fall into depression or anxiety disorders as they struggle to care for their loved ones.
Remember that as close as you may be to your spouse (or parent), his or her death sentence is not your death sentence. Protect yourself from undue stress by staying strong and remembering that you have a choice in how you choose to react to your loved one's illness.
For more by Carol W. Berman, M.D. click here.
For more on emotional wellness, click here.