How familiar does this sound:
“He’s not really that bad….” Or, “She just got a little turned around coming back from the grocery store.”
How about this one:
“I know he repeats things constantly, but that doesn’t mean anything’s wrong.”
And here’s a really troubling statement:
“Ok, so she left the water running in the bathroom sink; I got it turned off before it got out of the bathroom…and I cleaned up the excess water on the floor so it’s not really a problem….”
Question: How bad does it have to get for you to acknowledge there’s a problem?
I spent a fair amount of time in denial about my grandparents. I could plainly see something was wrong, but I was in my late 20s and didn’t have a clue what to do about it, so I did exactly nothing. Then when I was told they had turned up two hours from home on the side of the road in a wrecked car in below-freezing temperatures after having been gone for four days, I was forced to spring into action.
I still wasn’t fully ready to acknowledge the truth. I reasoned that Grandpa was better than Grandma, because after all, he had been diagnosed with an unspecified dementia while she had been specifically diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
My first solution was to put them into an independent living community. That worked about as well as chewing gum in a cross-cut paper shredder. It began to unravel on Day 2 when the resident manager called to say I needed to come get them because they were in her office numerous times throughout the day demanding she get them a street car so they could go home. Seriously: a street car. I felt like I was in a William Powell movie.
I wanted to deny the presence of the dementia. Then when I had to accept that it was real, I wanted to deny how advanced the symptoms were in both of them. I wanted to deny that I couldn’t reason with them, deny that they needed medical and psychological care beyond what I was able to do for them at that time, deny that they didn’t have the money for the kind of care I believed they deserved. Deny, deny, deny.
But truth will find its way out. Chris and I didn’t have the ability to keep them in our apartment, but the independent living wasn’t an option either because my grandparents lacked the cognition necessary to realize they needed to stay in or near the building for their own safety. At that time the nursing home was our only choice, and that awful truth was just devastating.
As prospective caregivers we’d like to deny the truth about a loved one’s condition. It took a long time for me to realize that my denial could actually have put them in jeopardy. What if they had been hurt (or worse) in the accident that put the dents down the passenger side of their car? What if they had wandered out from the independent living community and been struck by a car?
It’s important to know that denial is not something people will just “get over” when you tell them about it. In fact, most of the time people will actually deny that they’re in denial. One of the best ways to proceed is to continue to gently put the facts in front of them, then give them the bandwidth to make up their own mind.
Try to show love and support, not judgement and criticism. Unless there is immediate danger to the one needing care, allow the caregiver to reach the proper conclusion without trying to argue them down. Those kinds of arguments can leave a lingering impression, causing tension and division in families. Don’t let it go there; encourage, don’t force. Try to consider why the caregiver is in denial—because the hard truth is so ugly that denying its authenticity feels better—you may find you have some sympathy for the caregiver’s awkward plight.