Care Story #2: From arguing to beautiful moments: could it really be as easy as changing the subject?

The majority of family caregivers share that arguing with aging parents is a leading cause of tension. “Trying to reason with them about a particular idea they hold strongly will not end in happiness for either of you. You won’t be able to talk them out of their belief, no matter how long you debate. It is best to change the subject or divert their attention onto something else. They will rapidly forget what they held fast to and you can both move on to other things.” ~ Kathy Birkett, An Aging Life Care Manager Professional, Raleigh Geriatric Care Management.

One of the primary reasons we struggle is we don’t realize roles have changed.  When it comes to our parents, most of us were raised knowing parents had the final word. Likely, their approval also meant the world to us. At whatever age, there is also natural inclination to want to “be right”. However, at a certain point in the care relationship roles changes.  Whether it’s because the person we love is struggling with memory-related challenges or the stresses of chronic conditions make it difficult to reason – the road can be difficult. A caregiver’s approach can become the catalyst for more peaceful interaction.

A story of reversed roles:

One evening, an upset teenage daughter kept saying ‘Dad…I want to go home! I want to go home! I want to go home!’  When asked by her dad ‘Where is home?’,  she replied ‘Back WHEN everything was ok, WHEN we were traveling, singing and camping!’  It was profound moment for the father realizing that in his child’s mind home was not a physical place. Home was a mental and emotional safe feeling. Home was a time she could remember feeling happy and good.      

The following morning that dad was visiting his own father, a patient at a memory unit, as he suffered from dementia.   The elder man began their visit as he often did with , ‘I want to go home’. Ordinarily that would lead to a logical, and unproductive attempt to reason by his son that the memory unit was his new home.  That morning however, armed with a deeper understanding of home, the dad had a heartfelt reply, “Yes, let’s go home”.  The dad and his father held hands walking and talking as they shared fond memories. They talked about when his father taught him how to fish, when they built a tree house together and even how his father decided to ask his mom for her hand in marriage. It wasn’t long before the elderly gentleman felt peace and he stopped asking to go home.  When they returned to his apartment within the memory unit he asked, ‘Is this where I live? It sure seems nice.’   Other siblings began using this same approach. Overtime, it helped him transition to his new and final place of residence at the memory care unit.  Equally valuable, this approach to changing the subject led to more meaningful and healing visits.

Research confirms, when we are upset, talking about when things where ok is therapeutic. It can trigger a chemical reaction that helps brings a sense of calm. That dad was Joe Gleason, CEO of Genus.  He says, “as a caregiver sometimes it’s simply best to accept wining the argument isn’t the answer. It’s not the time to say ‘Dad, enough already .. you are home’.  Instead it may be best take them for a walk down memory lane.”

You are not alone:
At genus we talk with hundreds of caregivers and are truly fortunate to hear their many inspiring and touching stories.  We want to reassure you: you are not alone  in the hopes, struggles, fears, and communication challenges we all face – not just for those we are caring for – but within our entire care networks. 

For more information:

 Memory loss: https://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/2013-02-08-dealing-with-dementia-behavior/

Behavior and personality changes: https://memory.ucsf.edu/behavior-personality-changes

Relationships: https://www.caregiver.org/caregiving-and-sibling-relationships-challenges-and-opportunities

Tools: https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/revisiting-your-childhood-home-quot-remembrance-of-things-past-quot/