George Takei’s life might seem like a far cry from yours. His career in show business has spanned over fifty years, including television and movies, announcing on the Howard Stern Show and most recently last month’s Broadway debut of the musical Allegiance. But Takei’s fame and fortune did not shield him from a one of the most challenging roles all too many of us face: caregiver.
George’s beloved mother Fumiko Emily Takei, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the late 1990s. Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive degenerative condition which initially robs the patient of short term memory, judgment and ability to recognize familiar people and places. Eventually after losing the ability to speak, walk and swallow, the patient passes away from Alzheimer’s disease. On average a person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease lives for eight years with the condition.
Here are 4 strategies George Takei embraced when taking care of his mother:
Communicate with your spouse
or significant other.
Takei has said that he asked his husband (then partner) Brad Altman if it was okay for his mother to move in with them. While Altman agreed, some spouses may not. Moving in an older loved one with a debilitating physical and cognitive condition is an enormous commitment. Anyone who would be living with the patient should have a say in the decision.
Engage with like-minded individuals.
Takei reportedly embraced the Alzheimer’s Association and has even participated over the years in the Walk To End Alzheimer’s (previously called the Memory Walk). Other caregivers tending to loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease are your greatest allies. They are the only ones who can truly understand the daily struggles of caring for someone who is slowly disappearing before your eyes.
Don’t do it alone.
Takei and Altman hired caregivers to help with Mrs. Takei’s needs. While not everyone can afford paid help, be sure you are not the only one providing care for your loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Providing care on your own 24 hours per day is a recipe for caregiver burnout. Communicating with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease is difficult; the patient is often repetitive with comments and questions which can be enormously frustrating to family caregivers. Additionally, persons with Alzheimer’s disease require a tremendous amount of physical care as the disease progresses. Whether paid staff or additional family or friends are brought in to help, it’s essential to make sure there are lots of people sharing the responsibilities.
Learn about your loved one’s conditions.
Takei has shared that his mother became fixated on dust in his home. Since his home was free from dust, Takei initially attempted to assure her that there was no dust. But eventually after learning more about his mother’s condition, he realized that his mother was living in her long term memory. Back when the Takeis were incarcerated in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, there was dust everywhere. Once Takei realized this, he was able to better communicate and comfort his mother. Frequently when a person with Alzheimer’s disease is fixated on a delusion like the dust, the caregiver’s instinct is to “convince” the patient that she is wrong. But understanding that the delusion is very real to the patient and not fighting against it is most therapeutic. A great book for better understanding and responding to delusions in dementia care is The Validation Breakthrough by Naomi Feil and Vicki deClerk-Rubin.
Gerontologist Jennifer L. Fitzpatrick, MSW, CSP is the founder of Jenerations Health Education, Inc., an Education Consultant for the Alzheimer’s Association and a gerontology instructor at Johns Hopkins University. She can be reached at www.jenerationshealth.com or on twitter @fitzpatrickjen.