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Published February 16, 2013, 11:35 PM

Minding Our Elders: Serene atmosphere can relax care receiver

I’ve suggested that since Mom gets excellent care at the nursing home, my sister should visit less often so she can have more time for herself, but she gets defensive. I visit Mom as often as I can. How can I convince Mary that if she is more rested, she and Mom are both better off?

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

DEAR CAROL: My sister, who I’ll call Mary, is the primary caregiver for our mother. Mom has late stage Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home near Mary. Mary is understandably stressed by a demanding job, caring for her family and visiting our mom several times a week. I’m concerned because when Mary is around Mom in the nursing home setting, she seems rushed and her voice is sharp. Then Mom gets agitated and distressed. While I never criticize Mary’s approach, I’ve suggested that since Mom gets excellent care at the nursing home Mary should visit less often so she can have more time for herself, but she gets defensive. I visit Mom as often as I can. How can I convince Mary that if she is more rested, she and Mom are both better off? – Allison

DEAR ALLISON: You seem to genuinely want to help your sister as well as your mom, so I’m assuming as I reply that you realize that your mom may have bad days even with exceptional care. That being said, I agree that a caregiver’s body language and tone of voice can make a big difference to our vulnerable loved ones and that your mom may be picking up on Mary’s stress.

When people are in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, they are often listless and seem unaware of their surroundings, but that doesn’t mean that their surroundings don’t matter. Even though words are often not understood and faces not recognized, on some basic level most people with late stage dementia do seem to respond to the emotional atmosphere in the room. Several studies have confirmed that a calm caregiver and soothing environment generally results in a more relaxed care receiver.

You mention that you don’t criticize Mary’s behavior. That’s admirable, but it’s possible that she’s unaware that she’s passing her stress on to your mom. I’d try again to talk with Mary. If you first convey how much you appreciate what she does for your mom, she may be less defensive. You can reiterate how concerned you are that she’s taking on more than most people can handle and that in the process she may be inadvertently bringing her outside stress into her mother’s environment. Stay calm and loving. Be careful not to act as though you are blaming her for all of your mom’s negative moods.

Perhaps the nursing home staff could meet with you both and explain how sensitive your mom may be to the emotional atmosphere around her. They may also have suggestions for local organizations who visit people like your mom so that Mary can take more time off. If you have an area church with a Stephen Ministry program, that’s a wonderful place to start. You can check online at www.stephenministries.org for information on the program. The nursing home staff may have suggestions about local organizations who offer visiting services, as well. Continue to make the point that by cutting down on her visits Mary likely will feel less stressed. When she’s less stressed, she’ll have a more relaxed time with your mom and they will both benefit.

This article is written exclusively for The Forum.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.

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