McHenry County Opinion

Oliver: Just like in sports, ‘winning’ with dementia requires in-game adjustments

In sports, the adjustments teams make during games are the difference between success and failure. Not adjusting, particularly when things aren’t going well, almost guarantees a team will lose.

Life is a lot like that. We’re constantly confronted with situations that require adjustments in the way we do things. What might have worked in the past no longer works, and a new method, way or technique is required.

This also is true when caring for a person with dementia. Adjustments often need to be made daily.

The nature of dementia renders the situation challenging for caregivers. It’s as if the rules of the game keep changing. One day a person with dementia will be able to do something; the next day they will not. But wait a day and the skill might miraculously return.

As my husband’s early-onset Alzheimer’s disease has progressed, he has slowly lost a lot of the basic, daily skills that we all take for granted.

However, a balance must be struck between rushing in to take over a task and allowing him to figure it out. My approach always has been to allow him to be as independent as possible for as long as possible.

So, as we’ve made our way through the past eight years of his disease, I’ve very slowly and deliberately assumed more responsibility for his care as needed.

Early on, when Tony was still talking, we’d discuss when it was time for me to do more. The transition from Tony cooking to me cooking was a smooth one. I started helping, and I found myself helping more and more. Eventually, he stopped trying to be a part of the process.

As for driving, the decision for Tony to stop driving really was one he made. At that point, he wasn’t driving by himself anymore, and I was there to monitor how well he was doing. Still, he no longer felt comfortable, and the decision happened without much fuss.

Of course, not every transition has been quite that smooth. Things have gotten decidedly more difficult to figure out since Tony stopped speaking.

However, he’s still able to communicate. Though that isn’t always in the way I’d prefer.

Mornings have been a source of great angst at the Oliver homestead for a while now.

To make things go as smoothly as possible, I’ve been forced to play detective and put together various clues to figure out what exactly is the source of our issues.

When Tony isn’t happy, he often acts as would a toddler. He lashes out, often grabbing me by the wrists and squeezing as hard as he can. Ouch.

I do get the message that he’s not happy, but it’s not always clear exactly what’s setting him off.

For instance, Tony loves water. He used to be a skilled scuba diver, so the assumption that he just doesn’t like the water when he showers would be wrong.

I do my best to make sure the temperature isn’t too hot or too cold. At least in this regard, his reaction is easy to decipher.

I recently found myself nearing the end of my rope when our morning routine often left Tony angry and me with fresh bruises. This certainly was not something that could continue.

I chanced upon an item on Instagram from a woman who works with dementia patients. Something she mentioned struck a chord with me: Sometimes aggression comes from the fact that the person with dementia no longer remembers the sequence for showering. It’s frustration that fuels the aggression.

Here I was thinking that I was allowing Tony his independence and dignity by allowing him to take the lead in his showering routine when I was, in fact, just making him frustrated and angry.

An adjustment was needed. Once I began doing more to help, our mornings became a lot more peaceful for both of us.

Of course, I’m not naïve enough to think something else won’t crop up. It will.

However, I’m more than ready to make an adjustment if it means we both stay happy and healthy.

I’d call that winning.

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

Joan Oliver

Joan Oliver

A 30-year newspaper veteran who has been a copy editor, front-page editor, presentation editor, assistant news editor and publication editor, as well as a columnist and host of an online newspaper newscast.