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By Don Mitchell / Feb 29, 2016

You Suspect a Loved One Has Alzheimer’s: Now What?

Love ones with Alzheimer's

Talking about Alzheimer’s disease can be daunting.

Marty Reiswig understands this, both from personal and professional experience.

“Firsthand, I’ve seen and dealt with what happens to a family when dementia strikes,” said Reiswig, whose family carries a rare genetic mutation that causes early-onset Alzheimer’s and whose 64-year-old father is living with the disease.

Professionally, the former ordained Christian minister is a Seniors Real Estate Specialist® (SRES ®). Since founding GoodFit Homes four years ago, Reiswig has specialized in working with older clients, some affected by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Denial is a big challenge

Reiswig said a main obstacle families often face with dementia is denial. When approached, some people try to minimize the situation by saying, “It’s not a big deal,” or “I’m just having a bad day.”

“What family members should probably know is that they’re only likely getting the tip of the iceberg,” Reiswig said, noting the worst moments are seldom revealed. “They’re typically seeing the masked face that they put on when people come over to the house.”

Reiswig suggested people who suspect a loved one is experiencing cognitive decline should visit the Alzheimer’s Association® website to learn the 10 warning signs and symptoms of the disease.

Due to the progressive nature of Alzheimer’s, people living with the disease have a limited window in which they can explain their wishes for future care, living arrangements, finances, and legal matters.

For this reason, it’s important for families to discuss their concerns and work through denial quickly.

To help, Reiswig outlined four basic strategies to consider when having this difficult discussion with a loved one who might be in denial.

  1. Demonstrate compassion
    This is critical. Reiswig said the best way to demonstrate compassion is to listen closely to what the person is saying. “There’s really no other universal language that says I care about you than listening to somebody, and anybody in senior services will tell you that you have to listen for a long time.”
  1. Keep it close
    Involve only the closest family members at first. Perhaps begin with a one-on-one private conversation by saying: “This is a real problem, and I love you too much to let it slide.” If this approach fails, Reiswig suggested family members allow for a cooling down period because people don’t like to be pushed. From there, more family members should join the delicate conversation. It might even be necessary to involve the family doctor.
  1. Conflict sandwich
    Approach the conversation carefully. “If you know you’re going into a difficult conversation, you sandwich it with care and concern and something you mutually care about like your (loved one’s) long-term well-being,” Reiswig said. “Then you move into the difficult conversation because you’ve couched it in a way that says you’re not here to fight.” Reiswig suggested people end the conversation by saying something like: “I’m so glad we went through this. I know it must be really hard, but we love you and we want what’s best for you. You took care of us all these years, and now it’s our turn to help take care of you.”
  1. Identify the future estate administrator
    It’s imperative to determine whether the person living with dementia is still legally in charge of his or her finances and estate. If not, who does that person want to be named as the durable power of attorney for finances? A separate person can be named as medical power of attorney. It’s wise to consult with an elder law attorney when making these decisions.

“The main thing is you’ve got to sit down with the family and iron things out,” Reiswig said. “The biggest suggestion I would make to anybody (dealing with dementia) is just get professional advice.”

Though Alzheimer’s has affected about 85% of his family and could one day steal his memories, Reiswig has managed to find a silver lining in this horrible disease.

“Alzheimer’s is absolutely a curse. It’s absolutely terrible,” he said. “But I feel like the positive that you can wring out of it is taking the opportunities now to say what you want to say. You get the opportunity to give hugs and to give forgiveness and to write down advice to your (loved ones).”

The Alzheimer’s Association is not responsible for information or advice provided by others, including information on websites that link to Association sites and on third party sites to which the Association links. Please direct any questions to weblink@alz.org.