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How to Navigate Marriage and Dementia

Today, as more Americans live longer, an increasing number of married couples must cope with a spouse who is living with dementia. And while Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are said to impact the entire family, the spouses in the marriage are affected the most.  

Marriage and family dynamics experts advise that when a spouse is diagnosed with dementia, the lives of both spouses will change dramatically. Therefore, it is important for both partners in the marriage to recognize the challenges and know what to expect.

As stated in the Alzheimer’s Family Center article, “How to Navigate Marriage and Dementia: What Your Spouse Wants You to Know,” “It’s no secret … receiving a diagnosis of cognitive impairment (dementia) will change a marriage. Roles will change and plans for the future may come to an abrupt stop. The spouse with cognitive impairment (dementia) may feel their spouse is no longer on their side. For example, cooking, driving, medication management, etc., are taken away for safety reasons. The spouse who becomes the caregiver may take on responsibilities they never had to before.”

Grieve What You’ve Lost, Transform What Still Remains

Pauline Boss, Ph.D., the author of Loving Someone Who Has Dementia: How to Find Hope While Coping With Stress and Grief, adds, “When your spouse is living with dementia, you need to change your perception of your relationship even more radically. Perfection is no longer a realistic goal, but the possibility of some kind of relationship remains. Instead of continuing to try to make the relationship perfect, shift to a new value — good enough.

“We talk about discovering a new, less-than-perfect relationship, but first they must grieve the part of their relationship that has been irretrievably lost. Such loss is initially overwhelming, but eventually can be transformed into something more bearable.”

Says Crystal Yost, PCHA, PCH, Administrator at Impressions Memory Care at Bryn Mawr located in Bryn Mawr, PA, “While coping with the challenges of a marriage partner with dementia can be one of the greatest hardships in life, dementia care experts offer tips to make the road easier.”

Ways to Cope When Your Marriage Partner Has Dementia

  • Accept the fact that your marriage will change – Though very difficult, acceptance of a dementia diagnosis is the first step in moving forward with your life. Accept that your role will gradually change from an equal partner in your marriage to a caregiver for your spouse.

For as long as possible, do the things you used to enjoy together and adapt activities so your spouse can continue to participate. For example, taking walks together can be healing for both of you. Focus on the ways in which you still have your spouse rather than dwelling on what you’ve lost. 

  • Learn all you can about your spouse’s type of dementia – Educating yourself about dementia will eliminate any surprises and prepare you for what lies ahead. Each stage of dementia has different behaviors and it is important to know what to expect in each so you can plan ahead. 
  • Be empathetic and caring – Understand that your marriage partner did not ask for dementia. He or she is a victim of the disease. The changes in their behavior and personality are part of dementia’s progression and are no fault of their own. 

“In sickness and in health.” It is especially important to remember this when you become frustrated and angry – which is common when you are living with a spouse with dementia. Try to put yourself in your spouse’s position. 

  • Recognize that intimacy will be affected – Because of your spouse’s dementia, you may not be able to have the emotional and physical intimacy you once enjoyed in your marriage. Therefore, look for other ways to connect and express your love. For example, hold hands, listen to calming music together, look through photo albums, watch a favorite video and go to nearby places you’ve always enjoyed together, such as a local park.
  • Ask for help from others – Trying to do everything by yourself can leave you exhausted and at risk of burnout. Therefore, seek the support of family and friends. Others often want to help but don’t know what to do. Therefore, always be very specific in telling others exactly what you need, e.g., “Please sit with your dad on Wednesday so I can run some errands.” 

The Alzheimer's Association® 24/7 Helpline (1.800.272.3900), online message boards and local support groups offer excellent sources of assistance.

  • Practice self-care – Taking care of a spouse with dementia might be one of the greatest challenges you’ve ever faced. In fact, caregivers have been called the “second victims” of dementia due to the effects on their lives. Therefore, taking care of yourself should be a top priority. It is important to exercise, eat nutritious meals, remain involved with your friends, get sufficient sleep, find ways to manage stress and provide yourself with daily breaks to do the things you enjoy.                 
  • Consider professional dementia care – Taking care of a loved one with dementia in the home can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Professional respite care is often the perfect solution for busy caregiver spouses who need some time off from their caregiving responsibilities to enjoy some well-deserved “me time.” 

And when it is no longer safe or appropriate to care for your partner in marriage at home, specialized residential dementia care at Impressions Memory Care at Bryn Mawr provides the services and life-enrichment programs that provide your spouse with the individualized care, engaging days and meaningful moments they deserve.

We encourage you to contact us with any questions you have on dementia care or to schedule a tour. Also, we invite you to read our timely blog articles on current caregiver and dementia care topics posted on our website.

We Would Love to Hear from You!

If you have comments or questions about our blog, “How to Navigate Marriage and Dementia,” we’d love to hear from you. We also encourage you to share any of your caregiving experiences in our comments section.

Engaging Days. Meaningful Moments.

Loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease or other memory impairments require specialized care and support. They also deserve a lifestyle rich in dignity and fulfillment. Impressions Memory Care at Bryn Mawr provides residents with Engaging Days and Meaningful Moments that emphasize individual abilities, encourage socialization and promote the highest level of independence possible. We offer a complete continuum of leading-edge programs, services and amenities that address the total physical, emotional and social needs of residents in a caring setting that offers individual suites with large private baths and the comfort of home. Our memory care community touches hearts and changes lives.

Helping Families Be “Family” Again.

Memory loss caused by Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or another form of memory impairment doesn’t only affect the person who has it – it affects the entire family.

If you have a loved one with early- to mid-stage memory loss, you know how challenging it can be to provide the care that’s needed while trying to maintain balance in your life. As care needs increase, you may not be able to meet them physically or emotionally. It’s often difficult to be available to care for your loved one’s health and well-being around the clock.

If and when the time comes to seek additional help, place your trust in Impressions Memory Care at Bryn Mawr. We lift the stresses and worries of being a caregiver from your shoulders, enabling you and your family to enjoy time with your loved one again. 

For more information, please call Crystal at 484.380.5403 or contact us online. 

Disclaimer: The articles and tip sheets on this website are offered by Impressions Memory Care at Bryn Mawr and Main Line Senior Care Alliance for general informational and educational purposes and do not constitute legal or medical advice. For legal or medical advice, please contact your attorney or physician.