When we talk about mental health, one overlooked aspect is how difficult it is to care for our parents with old age-related mental illness. Perhaps the most common mental illness that affects older people is dementia. Dementia is a brain disease that causes memory loss. The disease distorts/wipes away memories.
Early this year, my dad had a stroke that affected his brain. We didn’t even think much of it when he began to mix up days. He’ll say it is a Sunday on a Monday, and he had just returned from church. The doctor said it was early dementia—the shock of it. I went online to read as much as I could about the illness. He just forgets, abi? I thought. We can deal with it. I was wrong. One day I called and asked how he was doing. It was a video call. He just stared at me and asked who I was. I thought it was a joke at first o. So, I decided to humor him and respond. He shook his head and said he did not have any daughter with that name and ended the call. Ah! Nothing prepared me for that moment.
It is very difficult to watch your loved ones lose themselves and lose their memories of you. What’s crazy with dementia is that it tends to mess with the mind because it is not a physical illness. The person you are caring for looks healthy. They are eating and talking and laughing. It will sometimes feel like you live with a stranger but one you’ve known your whole life. The process of caring for a parent or relative with dementia is physically, mentally, and emotionally draining.
With my dad, sometimes, I forgot that he was ill. I’ll assume he is pretending or purposely saying the wrong things and arguing with me. Then, I’ll be very sad or angry. The weight of his illness began to press me down. It showed in my physical appearance, too; I was always tired and very irritated. My mum and siblings were the same way. But thank God for the doctor treating my dad. He gave us some very helpful and sound advice.
Don’t take it personally when the person forgets. If they ask a question, respond. If they disagree and want to start an argument, then you should agree with them too. Arguing with a dementia patient will only make you upset and frustrated.
You are only a human being. On days when it is too hard, it is okay to take a break and cry or be sad. Talk to someone. If you can find people who have gone through the same experience, speak to them. Sharing with people who know exactly how you feel is helpful.
Don’t let the illness be the center of your life. This was the point the doctor stressed most. If you find your mind wavering towards the disease and how sad and tired you are, quickly think of something else. Dwelling on negative emotions will not help you or your loved one.
Finally, the fear of becoming your parent is real because dementia could be caused by genetics. But it’s okay to accept the fear. And, if you are worried, then take supplements that help with your overall brain health.