I once heard someone say that loving someone with Alzheimer’s disease is like loving two different people. There is the person you’ve known all your life, the one who raised you or built a life with you, or was special to you in some capacity, and then there is the one whose mind is confused, not quite what it once was. This second person is still special and unique, still adored and treasured, but often, this person seems to be a completely different person than the one you once knew.
There can be two different loves for this person also. You have the love you felt for the first person, be it romantic or parental or some other form of love. This love endures through diagnosis and sickness and memory loss. And then there is the second love. For many of us, this may be the trickier love to figure out. Alzheimer’s disease or dementia can often lead to angry outbursts, not recognizing loved ones, or assuming paranoid thoughts. It can be difficult to feel compassion or loving feelings when someone is angry with you or accusing you of things you didn’t do. And yet. Yet there it is. Love, underneath the anger and the tears and the confusion. Maybe it’s a different sort of love. An enduring, fighting, caring kind of feeling that moves you through your days. This form of love often looks like advocating for the best care, assuring that medicine is taken on time, and rehearsing memories over and over.
But there is a third kind of love that is important in these situations. And that is a self-love for you, as the caretaker. Being the caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia can mean a lot of exhaustion, giving, and heartache. It may mean long hours of sitting with someone, bathing someone, driving someone to and from places. It may mean losing the person you’ve loved so dearly your whole life. And in all the work and research and caring for another human being, it’s important to care for yourself too.
What are some ways that you can love yourself in the midst of such heartbreak and work? The most important aspect of self-care is that you do something that makes you feel like yourself. That is different for everyone. What is something that makes you feel like yourself? Maybe it’s reading a book in your favorite corner of the room. Maybe it’s getting outside and going on a walk or a hike in nature. Maybe it’s getting coffee with a friend. Maybe it’s exercising or listening to music or creating art. Self-love means doing something that gives you life. Don’t worry about what someone else might do for care or comfort. And make sure to differentiate between self-care and self-comfort. Self-comfort is often temporary and you may feel bad about it later, like spending a lot of money on shopping or binging Netflix all night. Self-care is about choosing something that is life-giving to you, that has lasting effects beyond the moment.
Above all, loving someone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia means a heart expanding in its capacity to love and care for another. You are suddenly able to do more, be more, love more, even when your heart is breaking. It may also mean you are angrier, more emotional, more confused. But that’s what happens when you love someone with all of your heart. Every feeling is amplified. The important thing is that you feel it all. Feel the first love, feel the new love, and love yourself well.