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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published August 29 2010

Bursack: Maintain Alzheimer’s patients’ dignity

Dear Carol: We are having problems making a family decision. My father-in-law passed away and my mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s disease. She only remembers her husband when someone mentions his name. Otherwise she doesn’t talk about him or even seem to know about him. She’s more worried about her parents, who, of course, are long dead. Do we take her to his funeral? – Geneva

Dear Geneva: Sometimes it seems easiest, and even kindest, to not take a spouse with advanced Alzheimer’s to the funeral of their deceased husband or wife. However, my feeling is that to not do so would be a dishonor to the marriage.

I’m not implying that there are no exceptions, such as when the living spouse is also near death or is too frail to be moved. However, to deny the person the right to be at the funeral, and if possible, burial of their mate, without extreme reasons, seems wrong to me.

It’s true that your mother-in-law will not likely understand all that is going on, nor will she remember the event. But how do we know that is true? How do we know that some moment of clarity that we don’t understand will let the information soak in?

Also, if she asks in the future, you can gently say, “You went to the funeral. Maybe it was so upsetting that you’ve forgotten, but you were there, so it’s all right.”

Often people ask me if they should continue telling the person who repeatedly asks about a deceased mate that their mate has died. That gets mushier. To put the person through the grief process day after day, as if the death is fresh, can feel cruel. There are kinder ways, at that point, to handle the situation. Many people just say, “You’ll be seeing him soon.” Often that brings comfort and support. This can even be used when questioned about parents.

My feeling is that the person – any person – has the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Part of that, to me, is to attend the final rites of their spouse as family and friends say goodbye. This ritual honors the dead, and honors the marriage. What is remembered afterward is going to be different with each person, but you will know you did your best to do the right thing.

Later, if (more likely, when) the surviving spouse asks about the deceased spouse, then you will have to discuss responses with your family members. You will, with some thought, find ways to handle these questions kindly.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and

runs a website supporting caregivers at http://www.mindingourelders.com

She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.