Dad Has Dementia…Can Mom Take Care of Him?


When your parents got married, they promised to love and care for each other “in sickness and in health.” That promise is often put to the test when one parent develops dementia or Alzheimer’s. Oftentimes the healthy spouse is thrust into playing the role of full-time caregiver to their spouse, whether or not they can (or even want to) take on that responsibility. The duties of a caregiver can be emotionally and physically draining, and if the healthy parent is struggling to provide adequate care for their spouse, it could be a very bad situation for both.

The Default Caregiver

No one dreams of the day when they will have to provide care for a parent or a spouse, but this is the reality many Americans face. According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s data-packed 2016 Alzheimer’s & Dementia report, 83% of care given to older adults comes from family members. The fact that roughly one third of caregivers is over the age of 65 indicates that a good portion of these caregivers are spouses.

Spouses often find themselves in the role of a caregiver out of necessity. They already live with their spouse and may not be located close to adult children or other family members. They may also feel like they can’t ask for help, because their adult children have full-time jobs or are raising children of their own. In many cases, the transition from “spouse” to “caregiver” is a gradual process. The healthy spouse will help remind their forgetful spouse about names and dates. They may take charge of the finances, making medical appointments, and driving. All of these responsibilities are likely to be natural extensions of what the healthy parent does anyway. However, Alzheimer’s and dementia are progressive diseases, and over time, your healthy parent’s caregiving responsibilities will continue to grow.

When Caregiving Can be too Much

Over the course of a spouse’s descent into Alzheimer’s and dementia, the caregiving responsibilities on the healthy spouse can become overwhelming. After all, “healthy” is a relative term. For example, your 80-year-old mother may be suffering from arthritis, have difficulty walking long distances, and struggle with poor balance due to her medication. Can she really help your father bathe and use the toilet? Can she dress him and constantly watch to make sure he doesn’t wander? Who will take him to his appointments or buy groceries if she has trouble driving at night?

The physical requirements of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s and dementia aren’t the only challenges the healthy spouse will face. Living with someone with dementia is also very emotionally demanding as well. Your father may become paranoid and angry. He may argue about food or accuse your mother of stealing from him. It is a lot for one person to handle alone and can have the effect of isolating a caregiver in their own home.

It’s no surprise that caregiver burnout is such a prominent experience among caregivers of all ages.

What Can You Do to Help Your Parents?

If one of your parents is caring for the other, there are things you can do to help ease the burden on your healthy parent. The first thing is to spend time with your parents and to keenly observe the situation. Look for any evidence that your healthy parent is struggling. For example:

  • Is your parent with dementia dressed appropriately?
  • Is your parent with dementia clean and hygienic?
  • Does your parent with dementia seem physically healthy (well fed)?
  • Does your caregiver parent seem rested and happy?
  • Is your caregiver parent emotionally healthy?
  • Is the house clean and sanitary?

If the answer to any of these questions is, “no,” then it might be time for you to intervene. First, have a heart-to-heart with your healthy parent. Approach this discussion with love, compassion, and understanding. Do not accuse your parent of neglect. Instead, let them share their struggles. You may have had no idea how difficult the situation has gotten over time.

If your caregiver parent clearly needs help, there are a variety of solutions you can offer. You may just need to check in more often to provide emotional support and understanding. If your parent is overwhelmed, perhaps you and your siblings can step in. Offer to care for your parent with dementia one day a week or more so that your caregiver parent can have some alone time or time to pursue their own hobbies and interests. Offer to drive Dad to appointments or come over and clean up the house.

If the situation is more serious, it may be time to discuss hiring a home health worker to help Mom with the more physical aspects of caring for Dad. It may also be time to discuss moving Dad into a memory care facility. Alzheimer’s and dementia are only going to continue to progress, which means that caring for Dad will become harder and harder on your mother. It is better to move him into a memory care facility earlier rather than when the situation becomes unsafe for him and your mother. At a memory care facility, your father can receive the supervision and care he needs from trained professionals. He will also be in an environment specifically designed to provide him with comfort and safety.

It can be very difficult to have this type of discussion with your caregiver parent, but it might also be necessary for your father’s safety and your mother’s sanity! If you live in the San Diego, Poway, or 4S Ranch area, we invite you to our free monthly caregiver support group. This is a great opportunity for you to meet other families who are facing the same challenges as you. You can ask questions, tell your stories, and find out how other families are dealing with the problems that you face.


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