A dementia spouse grieves husband's loss of memory on their anniversary
"Minding Our Elders" columnist Carol Bradley Bursack says it's certainly hard, but it's still worth trying to celebrate those big anniversaries, even if your spouse might not understand why you're celebrating.
Dear Carol: Last week marked the anniversary of the day that my husband and I married. Not only didn’t he remember our anniversary, but he doesn’t always understand that I’m his wife. It’s not his fault, of course, it’s his dementia, but that day nearly undid me. I tried to celebrate for the two of us by making a nice dinner, but he has no interest in food now. I even sent us flowers and bought two cards, one for him and one from him, but after I got him to bed, I sat up crying. Although friends tried to help, this can’t be fixed.
I’m recovering, of course, that’s what caregivers do, yet a piece of me died that day. Obviously, you can’t fix my pain and I’m not asking you to. I think I’m just writing to make people aware that this is one more painful step in the dementia journey. — PQ.
Dear PQ: Thank you for taking the time to write about this heartbreaking reality for dementia caregivers. Unfortunately, you’re right that I can’t fix your pain or even make you feel better, but I can sympathize and raise awareness.
This happened with my parents, though thankfully, Dad did understand who Mom was. However, I found occasions that celebrated love like their anniversary and Valentine’s Day incredibly painful even though I wasn’t the spouse.
Like you, we had flowers and cards I’d buy them and bring them to the nursing home since both of my parents lived there. Around noon, I’d walk Mom to Dad’s room where they were to exchange gifts and cards.
The scenario went like this: I’d make sure Mom had Dad’s card and/or gift and she’d give it to him. Depending on his condition on that particular day, Dad would take it, or I’d take it for him. Then, I’d guide his hand to give Mom her gift/card. She’d open it. Next, I’d open her card for Dad to see and read it to him, coaching him as I went. On and on the pantomime went until we’d finished each traditional step and visited for a while. Then, I’d resettle Dad and take Mom back to her room.
Yes, I'd go home and cry because it was all so sad. Yet what was the other option? Only to ignore the day — and that was unthinkable.
Your pain and my mom’s pain were far worse than mine as a daughter and I recognize that, yet I found each anniversary amplified all that was lost. I don’t think you’ll ever regret your attempts to celebrate your anniversary because that day still deserved celebrating. You know, too, that your husband loves you deep within, even if he can’t show it.
Cry when you need to, PQ, and consider joining a well-spouse support group or at least seeing a counselor who can help you cope with this pain. You can do this virtually if that’s the only way it's possible. Do what you can to take care of yourself.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.