How to Help Someone with Alzheimer’s Cope with Loss

How to Help Someone with Alzheimer’s Cope with Loss

This article was originally published by the American Geriatrics Society’s Health in Aging Foundation on their public education website HealthinAging.org.  Please visit HealthinAging.org for more information on health for older adults.


It’s hard enough to have to tell your mother or grandmother that her spouse has passed away. It’s another thing entirely when she has Alzheimer’s and you need to repeat this news often – maybe daily or even several times a day. With Alzheimer’s, every day is different, and every moment is unpredictable. The grief of losing a life partner, especially if that person was the primary caregiver, can be extremely distressing for a person with Alzheimer’s.

It’s going to be excruciating watching their grief happen over and over. With Alzheimer’s, both short-term and long-term memory can be affected. A person with Alzheimer’s might not be able to remember that her husband recently died, but she might also ask about people who died much earlier in her life, from days long before dementia set in. In addition, Alzheimer’s can affect behaviors and the person may have trouble using a fork, sleeping, or controlling their impulses. When their spouse passes away, they might not remember or they might become deeply distressed when they do. Here are a few ways you can help them cope:

  • Be patient. This is going to hurt your heart. You will have to relive the death and the pain of the retelling, and you shouldn’t have to do this alone. Get other family members involved and make sure the nursing home or caregiver reacts with patience and compassion, too.
  • Tell the news at the right time, but as soon as you can. People with Alzheimer’s will sense that something is wrong and their confusion will agitate their condition.
  • Choose a time to talk when the person with Alzheimer’s is rested and feeling strong.
  • Be brief and concise to avoid confusing them. You don’t have to share too many details.
  • Be honest with their questions and use clear terms liked “died” and not “passed away”.
  • Assign them a simple task for planning the funeral, to help the death be more real for them. Be sure someone can provide emotional support for them during the service and who can take them out if they become agitated.
  • After you share the news, continue to talk about the deceased person in the past tense.
  • Be open with your memories. Share your feelings and how much you miss this person.
  • Look for patterns around when you have to remind the person with Alzheimer’s about the death. Avoid bringing it up when they are in a good mood and follow their cues when you decide how much to talk about it.

If the deceased spouse was the primary caregiver to the person with Alzheimer’s, there is likely going to be some confusion by the changing of caregivers. These might worsen the symptoms of the disease. It should go without saying, but be sure the new caregiver is someone with a strong history of experience and reputable references. If you can find a caregiver who has experience dealing with transitions like these, you stand a better chance of it going smoothly.

As the caregiver changes, your relationship with the person with Alzheimer’s might change, too. There might be a loss of trust or intimacy, or unfiltered frustrations. Keep in mind all of this takes time, and there will be good days and bad days. If the burden becomes too stressful, you may want to bring family on board to help shoulder the weight, or eventually consider moving the person with Alzheimer’s to a facility that specializes in this kind of care. .

In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, memory loss and confusion stages may be mild. All of these changes related to the loss of a spouse could be easier for them to manage. But if the disease is advanced, the process of supporting your loved one through this death and transition could be much more painful. Stay calm, try not to take things personally and remember that you are not alone. There are thousands of Alzheimer’s support groups across the country where you can share your story and lighten your heart.

Written by Michael Longsdon
Creator of ElderFreedom.net 



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