Why Mirrors Can Be Stressful for Patients with Alzheimer’s
As I left my mom in the bedroom to take her clothes to the laundry room, she was sitting peacefully on the bed. It had been a good morning with her being responsive and helpful. I was relieved because these types of mornings had started to become more scarce as her Alzheimer’s disease progressed.
Walking downstairs, I suddenly heard a shriek coming from mom’s room. Then a crash! What in the world? I dropped the laundry and rushed up the stairs to her bedroom.
“Mom, what’s wrong?” I cried as I entered, seeing her jewelry box laying on the floor, fallen open, with her staring at the mirror looking terrified. She shrieked again and pointed at the mirror. Looking at the reflection, she put her hands on her face and then threw a hairbrush at the mirror.
The mirror–I had forgotten and left her alone with the mirror. A mirror can be very disturbing to a patient with mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a random thing that a care giver may not think of, as I didn’t at first, and it’s terrifying to the person with Alzheimer’s. Many times the patient will get upset and then hysterical for seemingly no reason. The culprit is often a mirror in the room.
If you think about the scenario and the basic facts, you can understand why. Alzheimer’s disease develops by first eroding short-term memory, and then gradually works on every memory over time. When an 87-year-old Alzheimer’s patient (who’s forgotten that they are 87) looks into a mirror and sees the image of an old person and not the 30-year-old that they think they are, it’s very scary. It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing a stranger. It’s horribly confusing and shocking to the person with Alzheimer’s. They may think they’re looking at a stranger that’s in the room, or be so confused they push you and anyone else away while they are upset.
Could this happen in your house? Are there mirrors hanging in the room? Situations like this are ones that you, as a caregiver, may not think of and have no way to know to plan for things like this without consulting with others and learning as you go.
Sometimes your loved one may decide the image in the mirror is a friend. They may start doing things for the friend in the mirror, like saving food. Or, your loved one may start refusing to shower, for fear of a stranger in the room that will see them naked. It’s hard to predict the interpretations they will have.
If you think that mirrors may be causing problems or discomfort for your loved one with Alzheimer’s, limit the access they have to mirrors. Alzheimer’s can be a hard, stressful disease to live with-for both your loved one and you as the caregiver. The thing to keep in mind is that, for every irrational behavior, there is a trigger. Once you can identify the trigger (and often it’s something like a mirror), you can remove it and provide a great service for your loved one. It all comes with patience, compassion and understanding for your loved one and what they are going through.
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