Understanding Mom's bad behaviorMay 19, 2023 01:04PM ● By Laird Landon
Dear Laird: I have been my mother’s caregiver for about five years. She has Alzheimer’s. It hasn’t been particularly difficult until recently. A couple of months ago my mother’s personality changed—I mean really changed. She was always a sweet lady with never a harsh word for anyone. But now, she has become a regular potty mouth. She curses at me and at my sister when she comes over. Anyone who comes to the house gets a flood of bad words. The other day, she used the F word in a restaurant. I am totally baffled and upset. Signed, Cynthia
Dear Cynthia: It is really upsetting when a loved one behaves way out of character. Besides the shock of unacceptable behavior, the change is so radical that we can’t believe it.
You might have thought your mom would always be herself in spite of the disease. But now it seems she is not. That can trigger anger, embarrassment, loss and feelings of grief.
Our brains have several specialized parts. Each involves a unique function. Dementia attacks each part in a different order and in separate ways. The right and left sides work together on language. The right side manages automatic speech, like for emergencies and strong emotions––“Look out!” and “Damn!” The left side of the brain controls formal language. It sets up a filter for situations where automatic words may offend, and it even substitutes softer words when needed.
Here’s why understanding how the brain handles language is important: Dementia degrades and destroys the left side of the brain first. When the filters are gone, inappropriate words come out.
You cannot change her. However, you can respond in ways that are helpful to you both.
First, accept that it is the disease and you can’t fix her swearing.
Second, understand that swearing means she is confused, tired, frustrated or afraid. She has forgotten how to tell you things, so she swears. Ask her what’s wrong and coach her to express her feelings.
Third, redirect her to a calmer emotional place. The brain’s right side also controls music and singing. Play her favorite tunes, sing along with her, start a conversation about why the tunes are memorable. She will be happy. She will be using her long-term memory. This is called reminiscence therapy.
I hope you will reflect on how these changes in your mom affect you. Let yourself think about what this change means to you both. Further, please realize there will be more changes to come, and they will be hard to accept as well. You will be there for her out of love and you will be able to contend with the pain. It is hard, but it is also one of most selfless things you have ever done.
Send your questions to Laird in care of Life After 50, or email him at [email protected]