You have sat in the doctor’s office and heard the one word you suspected but did not want to hear.
In the five stages of grief, denial is nearly always the first coping mechanism we, as humans resort to. It can’t be, can it? Maybe the doctor is wrong. There is no way this happening to me, to them. As tempting as it is to soak in the comforting pool of denial for as long as possible, the longer you remain in that space, the more dangerous it becomes for your family member.
You Waste Valuable Time
Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease often require swift action to preserve as much brain function as possible. Additionally, starting medications early can preserve high levels of patient functioning as long as possible. However, once those functions are gone, they are difficult, if not impossible, to regain. As unpleasant as it may be to have many of the conversations involved with such a diagnosis, the patient must attend to their financial and legal affairs while they are still cognitively able to do so. Obtaining a power of attorney, living will, or instructions for end-of-life care are infinitely more difficult to obtain in the more advanced stages of the disease.
Denial Causes Stress
As much as we would like to believe none of this is happening to our loved ones, our brains are more sophisticated than we often give them credit. In the recesses of our mind, we understand the implications of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. This conflict between reality and a desired reality causes high levels of mental and physical stress. Heart attack, stroke, incapacitation, or illness can incapacitate the caregiver if the source of such mental and physical stress is not properly dealt with. Seeking the advice of a mental health professional often helps caregivers move through the denial phase in a constructive manner that alleviates many of the adverse effects of stress.
Family Relationships are Strained
While some people may look at denial as a way of maintaining optimism about a loved one’s prognosis, it is actually caustic to family relationships. One person may be able to compartmentalize their grief in favor of action while another family member may feel the need to deny that their loved one’s diagnosis is valid. Such push and pull in families causes strained relationships rather than the focused team effort required for caregiving. It is important to remember that fear often overrules logic. As a result, it may seem as though no amount of logic will comfort someone who is fearful. Instead, it is important to allow for sorrow and grief while calmly and firmly moving the primary agenda forward – caring for the patient. While some family relationships may experience temporary strain, the ultimate goal of attending to loved one’s needs is paramount.
What You Can Do Instead
The five stages of grief are rarely linear. Some days a caregiver can conquer the world while others they may struggle to get out of bed. However, the most powerful tool in moving forward after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is to focus on the things you can control. You cannot control the progression of your loved one’s disease. You cannot control their anatomical processes, how well they will tolerate medication, or when they will need the help of a skilled nursing facility. You can control how you react, your attitude, your thought processes, your plan of attack. Only then will the tide of denial fade into simple motivation for pressing forward.