11/01/2012 10:10 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Wise Advice from Dr. Ruth on Alzheimer's Caregiving

Dr. Ruth Westheimer

"Somewhere inside me a fire burns to help people overcome their problems." So says the spirited, renowned sex and relationship therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, in her new book, Dr. Ruth's Guide for the Alzheimer's Caregiver: How to Care for Your Loved One Without Getting Overwhelmed . . . and Without Doing It All Yourself.

I must admit I was more than a little skeptical when I picked it up. I wondered how Dr. Ruth could possibly know about Alzheimer's caregiving, how anything about sex belonged in this book, and how inappropriate her trademark sense of humor would be when writing about this serious topic.

After reading the book, however, I concluded that it's one of the best I've ever read on Alzheimer's caregiving. And I've read a lot. No, it doesn't have any humor and yes, there's a brief section on sex that is entirely appropriate.

In the introduction, Dr. Ruth writes, "The purpose of this book is to make carrying that weight [of caring for someone with Alzheimer's] a little more tolerable." She succeeds fully in accomplishing that mission.

When I recently asked her how she became passionate enough about this topic to write a book on it, she told me she has friends whose spouses have Alzheimer's. "It's so sad," she said. "These caregivers need help to keep their morale up. They needn't feel guilty if they go out to a movie or do other things for themselves."

She took everything she knows about behavioral therapy and applied it to Alzheimer's caregiving in Part One, Advice from Dr. Ruth. In Part Two, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, she presents information she's gleaned from friends and acquaintances, her own research and communications with experts in the field. Although she says, "Thankfully, I have not had to deal with caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's," from reading this book one would assume she has had several years of experience doing just that.

This guide, written with Pierre A. Lahu, Westheimer's "minister of communications" for more than 31 years, is jam-packed with practical, hands-on, down-to-earth information designed to help caregivers function in their new roles and take care of themselves. But it doesn't just advise them what to do, it includes detailed explanations of how to do it.

Part One covers topics such as how to help yourself, how to deal with your feelings, and getting professional help when feelings begin to interfere with normal activities. It also discusses how to have your own life when taking care of a loved one with Alzheimer's and specific issues that arise when taking care of a spouse, a parent or other relative with dementia. In addition, there is information about helping children and grandchildren cope and how to deal with professional caregivers, including detailed tips on how to hire an in-home caregiver.

Part Two includes information about treating Alzheimer's, tips for caregivers, where to get help, looking for facilities, and handling legal and financial issues. The 14 tips on "Learning the Language of Alzheimer's" -- learning to communicate with people who have dementia - is especially helpful.

Westheimer frankly tells the reader, "Normalcy isn't in the cards for you any longer" and "You have to marshal your forces for this long journey. If you don't protect your strength, you'll never make it."

There isn't any unsuitable humor in the book but there is a section on sex, written in a sensitive way. How wrong I was to think a discussion about sex would be inappropriate. She says that some people with Alzheimer's can have sex (although they may forget it two minutes later) and concludes, "The decision of when to have sex, or maybe never to have sex, is up to you. Don't assume that your sex life has to end, but instead allow yourself the freedom of choice." She also discusses how to handle loved ones who exhibit sexually inappropriate behavior.

Dr. Ruth takes a firm stance on the hotly controversial issue of whether to find another partner. "Though it's not your spouse's fault," she says, "you've been abandoned. If you need the love, the companionship and, yes, the sexual gratification of a relationship, then by all means seek one out."

Westheimer, who is 84, has written 36 books, half of them with Lehu, and most dealing with sex. Her best-selling Sex for Dummies has been translated into 27 languages. And although she says "I'm not computer literate," she has more than 65,000 followers worldwide on Twitter.

I don't want to use a cliché, but I feel compelled to do so. This new guide really is a "must read" for anyone caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's.

Note: A slightly different version of this review was published on the Alzheimer's Reading Room.