A Stranger in Their Eyes: Six Keys of Kindness in Dealing with a Parent’s Descent into Dementia

Perhaps Plato prescribed the appropriate treatment for the varied human condition when he said, “Always be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” Of all the battles in which we find ourselves engaged, I can think of none more perplexing than when a parent begins a descent into dementia. The progressive nature of this descent requires a compassionate Guide for all concerned and Kindness is that Guide – kindness expressed to the parent and extended to the adult child.

Often, adult children of parents battling with dementia find themselves distressed on multiple levels. Confusion, anger and resentment routinely take up residence in their lives. They find themselves struggling to break free from the grip of fear, uncertainty and longing. The once clear relationship they had with their parent slowly fades into blurry, gray shadows of memory until both become strangers to self and one another. The feelings identified with this descent are most accurately identified as feelings of loss and grief.

Loss encompasses any change in the norm – any alteration of life’s landscape that creates distress and chaos. “Ambiguous Loss” best describes the loss that occurs without promise of closure or understanding – the kind of loss that leaves one searching for answers and thus often complicates and delays the grieving process. Ambiguous loss is the constant companion of the adult child facing this set of circumstances.

“Anticipatory Grief” is the type of grief that occurs before an impending loss. Adult children find themselves not only grieving the almost daily changes in behavior and perception on the part of the parent, they also must acknowledge that this condition will lead ultimately to physical death

In order to come to terms with this progressive deterioration and ultimate death, the adult child must work to mourn this series of losses and thereby come to a point of reconciliation in the process. Following are Six Keys of Kindness that can help an adult child arrive at that place of peace:

  • Avoid Denial – Many times the pain of embracing the obvious prompts us to minimize or rationalize signs of deterioration. Avoiding denial means that we must embrace and explore the signs that are present in order to become better prepared.
  • Educate Yourself – Knowledge is power! Conduct research. Talk to a physician or expert on aging. Find out everything you can about dementia, its effects, current treatments, anticipated outcomes and ways to be most supportive.
  • Plan for the Unexpected – Work on cultivating an attitude of flexibility in order to effectively address the challenges inherent with this experience. A therapist friend of mine once told me, “Be a Willow. Only the Flexible survive!”
  • Celebrate the Good Days – There will be good days in this arduous process. Find ways to mark them and create new memories that can help carry you through.
  • Seek Support – Whether in a caregivers support group, from your family physician or a mental health professional, reaching out for assistance can only help you maintain your health and allow you to provide appropriate support for your parent.
  • Make Reconciliation Your Goal – Reconciliation is best defined as the ability to take what you thought you had in life, progressively come to terms with what you actually have and then carry the balance of memories, lessons and perspectives forward with you throughout the remainder of your life.

Mark Hundley is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor and Life Transition Specialist with a specific expertise in the field of grief. He works with individuals, families and corporate bodies to create and implement strategies for powerful living despite obstacles faced. He is the author of Awaken to Good Mourning – a personal guide through the journey of grief. Please visit www.markehundley.com for more information or to contact Mark.