THE BLOG
04/21/2014 11:13 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

Alzheimer's Caregivers: 3 Tips for Restoring Harmony to Your Relationship With Your Loved One

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Some people with Alzheimer's may at times be extremely difficult to get along with. The following personal story provides three tips that may help restore harmony to your relationship if your loved one's behavior has become challenging.

The memory and mental status of Ed, my beloved Romanian life partner of 30 years, were declining slowly, and he was becoming incredibly difficult to get along with. I was at the end of my rope. I really was.

Desperate, in a last-ditch effort to save my sanity and the relationship, I invited my friend and colleague at the University of Cincinnati, Irene Moore, MSW, to lunch to discuss "a problem with Ed."

Irene knew a lot about Alzheimer's. Not only was she a specialist in geriatric social work, her mother had died from Alzheimer's several years earlier, giving her a tragic personal experience no one should have to go through.

A few minutes into lunch, Irene addressed the issue at hand: "So, how is Ed?"

"Actually," I began, "he's become impossible to be around. He's incredibly irritable, angry, mean and emotionally abusive."

"That doesn't sound good," Irene said somberly.

"I love Ed," I said, "But I just don't think I can tolerate this anymore. Yet I can't possibly end our relationship, either. He couldn't get by without me."

"And he's getting really confused lately, Irene. Last Saturday evening he actually called the New York Times and yelled at them because he hadn't his 'Sunday paper r-r-received yet.'"

"When I reminded him it was Saturday, he got angry. He gets angry over the smallest things. We used to be able to discuss things we disagreed about, but if I express a contrary opinion now, he becomes hostile. It's maddening."

"Hmm... Well, Dr. Marley," Irene said, looking at me with empathy. "You do have a problem indeed. I think he may be developing Alzheimer's."

"Alzheimer's?" I repeated, immediately dismissing the notion. "Well, I don't care what he's getting. I just don't know how much longer I can take it."

I didn't want to hear about or think about Alzheimer's.

"You have the option of ending the relationship. You know that, right?"

That made me snap to attention.

"Irene, I can't do that," I said, as though it was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard. "I love him. Besides, I told you, he couldn't survive without me. How could I ever abandon him?"

"I know women who were married for as long as 50 years who, in similar situations, divorced their husbands."

"How could I possibly do that?" I said. "It would be morally reprehensible. He couldn't make it through a single week alone. I have to take care of him. If I don't, no one will," I said. "I have no choice."

"Well," Irene said, "in that case, perhaps we need to talk about how to manage the situation."

"Yes, please," I said.

"There are three things I can advise you," she said. "First, don't bring up topics you think may upset him. Second, if he starts to get agitated, change the subject. And third, agree with everything he says, no matter how absurd."

I was speechless. That would change our relationship completely.

"If I follow your advice we can't discuss politics," I said. "Our views differ so much that would violate rule number one. And I couldn't talk about my job or personal problems because he'd get upset if I didn't take his advice. That would violate rule number two. And quite seriously, I can't imagine myself agreeing with everything he says because he's so often wrong. I can't imagine bowing my head and going along with whatever nonsense comes out of his mouth."

"I can't promise following this advice will stop all the fights," she said. "But it'll help. Why don't you try it for a while and see what happens?"

"But Irene," I said. "I can't agree with him when he says stupid things."

"When that happens, just ask yourself, 'Do I want to be right or do I want to have peace?'"

That was a difficult question. If I followed her advice it meant my relationship with Ed would change dramatically. We'd no longer be able to talk about whatever we wanted, or whatever topics naturally arose. And -- what I dreaded the most -- I wouldn't be able to be honest. No matter how much I disagreed with him, I'd have to pretend to concur. Our relationship would become superficial, dishonest and unreal.

But I decided to try it. And that's how it came to be that as Ed's mental state deteriorated I agreed with him more and more. About important things, unimportant things; political issues and mundane day-to-day issues; silly things and serious things.

Although this whole plan seemed ridiculous at first, I found that it did stop most of our nasty fights, and our relationship returned to its previous tranquil status. I eventually realized it really was better to have peace than to be right. I learned that Alzheimer's caregiving and pride don't mix.

Marie Marley is the award-winning author of the book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy. Her website (www.ComeBackEarlyToday.com), has a wealth of information for Alzheimer's caregivers.