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When dementia affects your parent

Along with parenting their children, many of today's parents help with their own parents. This is especially true when a parent is affected by Alzheimer's or dementia.

Dementia creeps in like a thief in the night, stealing your parent's memories away a little at a time until just a shell remains
Dementia creeps in like a thief in the night, stealing your parent's memories away a little at a time until just a shell remains
Sandy Wallace
Alzheimer's and related dementias affected more than 5.2 million Americans in 2013
Sandy Wallace

The Alzheimer's Association offers community programs, support services, caregiver resources and a 24-hour hotline for assistance when dealing with a dementia patient.

At the Alzheimer's Association website, you will also find online surveys and tools to help you assess caregiving needs for a loved one with dementia.

Dementia is defined as "a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life." To be diagnosed with dementia, a person has to be impaired in two or more of the following essential mental functions:

  • Memory
  • Communication and language
  • Ability to focus and pay attention
  • Reasoning and judgement
  • Visual perception

Alzheimer's and related dementia affects more than 5 million Americans. Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer's or dementia.

All of these are facts and figures about Alzheimer's and dementia. What the facts and figures don't tell you is what it feels like when your parent is affected by dementia.

Think about the sweet memories from when your child was a baby. The soft feel of a newborn's skin against your own. The sound of a tiny voice crying in the night. The warmth of a snuggling, sleepy little one in your arms.

Remember the toddler years. Think about your child's first step. Recall your child's first words and favorite toys. The toddler years are filled with learning new skills.

The preschool years fly by so quickly for most parents. If you're lucky, you are able to remember days of adventure, time spent at the park, teaching your child about letters, numbers and colors.

No parent can forget the first day of big kid school. The pride you felt watching your little one step onto the big yellow bus for the first time as you brushed away tears.

The school years are filled with music and sports, homework and friends. Your child begins the journey away from you. It's a long journey that is filled with activity, laughter and many happy memories.

Parents whose children are grown can remember the details of the moment their child left home for the first time. Maybe you drove your child to college or watched her walk down the aisle. You probably helped move your young adult son into his first apartment or house.

Many parents share their children's special moments with their own parents. Often, as you tell your parent something your child did, your mom or dad shares similar memories from your own childhood.

Your parents may tell you how much your child looks like you, walks like you or talks like you. Your mom or dad may tell you about your first day of school or how they felt when you walked down the aisle.

As a parent, you may also have happy memories of your parent playing with your children, reading them books, fixing their favorite snacks and attending their school events.

Imagine those memories stolen from you. Gone one by one as you watch helplessly. That's what it feels like when a parent has dementia.

You may be talking to your mom on the phone about a special time you shared together and she doesn't remember it at all. You ask questions about what things you liked at a certain age and she doesn't know.

You might tell your dad how much you loved going fishing together, but he doesn't remember anything about ever going fishing. You ask your dad what he liked best about being a parent and he doesn't know.

Your parent may not remember your children's names or ages. Eventually, your parent won't remember your name or who you are.

Dementia is a thief in the night, slowly stealing away the parent you once knew and leaving behind a shell. The person left behind looks the same, but they don't remember the millions of memories that make up your life - or their own.

If your parent has dementia, it's important to remember that they are still the same loving person who taught you to read, helped you tie your shoes and kissed your boo-boos into oblivion.

Try to be as patient with your parent as they were with you when you were learning new things and forgot. Realize that it's not your parent's fault that the memories are gone.

Share your own memories from the past and cherish what memories your parent still has. Look at old photos together, even if your parent doesn't remember the past.

It's okay to grieve what your parent has lost - and what you have lost. But it's also important to move forward and accept the new reality of being a parent to your own parent.

Whether your parents live nearby or far away, offer as much support as you can. Parenting your own parent is difficult but your parent deserves no less than the best you can give.

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