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Posted May 1, 2006

Ask An Expert

Elderly Behavior: Coping with 'Distant' Spouse

Q. I am having a very hard time coping with not seeing my husband of 55 years.  He is in an assisted living, and needs to be there, but wants to come home (to his MOTHER'S HOME) and he is so angry with me because of my control over him.  He thinks he needs to be out of there and at home with his mother (she died years ago).  Now he does not know me except to HATE me whenever I come to see him because of my not letting him go “home.”  Very, very sad.  How do we handle this one?

Thelma G., Haines City, FL

A. It is indeed very difficult when your life partner not only is unable to live with you any longer, but he also does not know you or understand what you are dong to help him. Here are some thoughts to consider:

  1. How long has you husband been in the assisted living residence? If he was recently moved (e.g., less than two months ago), it may be that you just need to give him time to settle into his new situation. Be patient.
  2. Continue to remind yourself that your husband is suffering from a brain disease that affects his ability to think and act rationally. If you can see his actions as “the disease talking,” it will be easier for you not to take his angry words personally.
  3. Finally, try looking at your pattern of visits and his patterns of daily behavior and mood. Talking to staff at the assisted living facility can help you. Are there times of day when your husband seems to be less confused and agitated? If so, you might try to time your visits to coincide with his “good” periods. Is he less likely to become angry if you visit with another family member or friend, if you stay for a shorter period of time, or if you have some distracting activities that the two of you can share while you are there? Does he get upset as soon as you walk in, or only when you announce you are going to leave? Is it better or worse if you visit more or less frequently? If you can find things that tend to trigger his upsets or cause them to escalate, you might be able to rearrange your visits in a way that will make them more enjoyable for you both.

This answer is provided by Susan M. McCurry, Ph.D., Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington, School of Nursing, and a licensed clinical psychologist. She is a fellow in the Gerontological Society of America and an expert in the development of behavioral interventions for the treatment of mood and behavior disturbances in persons with dementia and family caregivers. Her publications include the recent book, “When A Family Member Has Dementia: Steps to Becoming a Resilient Caregiver” (Greenwood Press). She can be reached at smccurry@u.washington.edu.

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