How To Respond To Alzheimer’s Surprises

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Alzheimer’s is unpredictable and surprising, as all caregivers know. The changes in behaviors can catch us by surprise. It never fails when I think I have a handle on things, Alzheimer’s will surprise me by how something that used to be simple now has to be strategically thought out. I wanted to share a story when Alzheimer’s caught me by surprise when it came to a public restroom. This was one of the many times I had to think on my feet and figure out how to go with the flow. Luckily, I have learned some tips and tricks that help me and will hopefully help you respond when Alzheimer’s catches you by surprise.

Here we go!

My Alzheimer’s Surprise

My mom and I were making our bi-weekly trip to Target. Things were going well, and as we walk in, I realize that I have to use the restroom. A wave of anxiety hits me; this could be bad. Trying to think on my feet, I go with my first instinct. I tell my mom I need to use the facilities, and I ask her if she needs to use the restroom when we get inside. She confidently tells me “no.”

Small panic attack. How am I going to do this? I can’t leave her in the lobby; she will walk off, talk to someone, touch something she shouldn’t, and not explain what is happening because she won’t remember. I also can’t force her to go to the bathroom with me. I am still her child, not her parent.

It Is All About Strategy

I start thinking out my strategy fast as we continue walking down the parking lot toward the entrance. What are my options? As I go through my list of bad ideas, I hear myself saying to my mom, “Well, I have to go to the restroom.” She responds, “okay.” Trying to focus less on the action and more on getting her into the bathroom, I ask, “Will you go in there with me?” Hoping my suggestion of needing her to come with me will pay off. This could solve the problem. She agrees. The crisis somewhat averted.

We get into Target and head to the public restroom. I should have used the family restroom, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. The Target restroom isn’t the cleanest, but it also isn’t the worst I have seen. All the stall doors are empty; it is just my mom and me. We check for clean stalls. My mom walks into her own stall out of habit and environment and begins to use the restroom.

Embrace The Alzheimer’s

The thing that they don’t tell you about Alzheimer’s is that simple, quiet, non-talking tasks become loud and verbal, or maybe it is just my mom.

She starts navigating her bathroom stall out loud. “I’m going to hang my purse here.” “Oh, I need to put one of those down.” “Okay, got to do this” “Where is the toilet paper, oh right there.” She adds some “hmms,” “mm-mms,” and “oos,” and “oohs” for extra sound effects. I should probably note she isn’t doing this while fulfilling nature’s demand just while navigating each of the steps. Who knew natures calling could be so difficult.

While she is doing this, I am rushing. Why you might ask, because my brain is already thinking of the next hurdle, don’t let her beat me out of the stall, she might leave and wander into the store!

As I’m opening my stall door, I hear her wrapping things up. A sick and twisted boost of dopamine kicks in because I have beat my mother in our race to use the bathroom.

I start washing my hands, and she comes out of the stall. She mimics my actions. Alas, we both realize there are no paper towels, only hand dryers. We both do the wet hand pant drying dance. Then navigate out the door, and I find the public hand sanitizer. We both take a dose, and now the adventure at Target can begin.

Quote from Kristin at the Role Reversal: I have learned a lot about responding to Alzheimer's, and I continue to learn every day.

How I Respond To Alzheimer’s Surprises

Did any of you catch what I did? If you didn’t, that is okay. Throughout the segment, I bolded my tips on responding when Alzheimer’s caught me by surprise. I will explain a little more, but I always find it helpful to see the resources applied to a real-life example.

Ask Your Alzheimer’s Loved One:

Sometimes just asking your loved one how to respond works. In my case, not so much, but this is an easy first step when Alzheimer’s puts you in a surprising situation. Ask your loved one to do something with you, or asking what they want to do (if that is an option) can take the pressure off of you and get your loved one involved. It gives them purpose.

Let Them Know You Need Them:

I may not have demonstrated this as best as I had hoped, but hopefully, you get the picture. By asking my mom, “will you do this with me?” I connected us in action. Trying to convey that I needed my mom to go into the restroom facility with me. I embraced the need to nurture and parent. Sometimes it is all in how you phrase it.

Change The Environment:

Remember in the parking lot when my mom didn’t need to use the restroom? By changing her environment and walking her into the restroom her brain instantly jumped into normal habits. If she is in the restroom she must go to the restroom. By changing a loved one’s environment to be where normal habits take place, you may be able to trick their brain and get them to do what you need. I realize caregivers can’t always do this, but it is worth a shot if it can. Right?

Perform The Task:

I honestly don’t know if my mom would have known to wash her hands. I did know that if I took my time and she saw me washing mine, then she would mimic my actions. When my mom gets lost in a process, she looks to see what others are doing then mimics them. This is a great way to guide an Alzheimer’s loved one without having to call them out for not knowing what to do next.

Stay Calm:

You caught me; I did not highlight this one. I know this isn’t always the easiest thing to do. When responding to Alzheimer’s surprises, try your best to stay calm. You have all the tools and skills you need; by staying calm, you allow your brain to think through all the caregiving tools you have. Being able to think through it will help you get through it.

Final Thoughts

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be navigating or panicking about my mom using a public restroom. I never thought this would be a challenge for me. It is such a think-less task that goes to show Alzheimer’s takes over everything. I know continence will get worse over time. I know the challenge of public restrooms and away from home outings will be difficult. This will all progress as the disease progresses. My caregiving journey will get more difficult. This is was only a taste of what is to come.  That doesn’t make it any less significant. That doesn’t make it any less hard. That doesn’t save or relieve the grief I am feeling. But that is the way of Alzheimer’s.

Share Your Stories

When has Alzheimer’s caught you by surprise? What are your unexpected challenges? What simple task has caught you off guard either because you have to respond in public or you weren’t anticipating it? How did you respond? What would you have changed?

Keep on caring as the role reversal continues.


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