Even the happiest of families can find their love for each other is tested by a dementia diagnosis. Here, Theresa Jones reveals how she and her sister managed to stop fighting, and offers some advice based on what she learnt.

When our father was diagnosed with dementia, my sister and I were shattered but vowed to stay strong. We would, we agreed, share the burden of care and present a united front. After all, we both loved our dad desperately and were in this together.

Yet within a few months my sisters and I were doing what we had always done best…bickering, squabbling and yelling at each other. Our fights could revolve around anything from the most trivial issue, such as who’s turn it was to check Dad’s fridge, (‘if he gets food poisoning it will be your fault,’ ) to who should have power of attorney ('you’ve always been useless with money, Dad would want me to do it’).

As his condition deteriorated one particular subject began to surpass all others; where should Dad live?

Our differences were further exacerbated by the fact that the dementia journey isn’t only long – Dad’s lasted 11 years – it’s also consistently inconsistent. For example, Dad could appear lucid and upbeat when my sister visited in the morning, but when I arrived at lunchtime, he could be on the verge of burning his kitchen down or causing a flood in the bathroom. Understandably therefore, we had our own views about how to keep him safe. Should he continue living at home, as my sister wanted, or should we persuade him to consider residential care?

We couldn’t agree and in the end Dad was Sectioned under the Mental Health Act and the decision was taken away from us. He went into a nursing home, which was what I had wanted, but I can’t say it made me feel good to have ‘won.’ Instead, I felt guilty and embarrassed that we’d both somehow let Dad down. One day, I confided in one of Dad’s carers at the home. To my surprise she took everything I said in her stride. ‘You’d be amazed how often I hear the same story my dear,’ she said simply.

It was such a tonic to hear those words, to have it confirmed that we weren’t the only family in the world to be finding this journey such a struggle. I deliberately hadn’t told anyone else because I felt so ashamed about it. That night I called my sister and we talked honestly and openly for the first time in a long time. We vowed that, for Dad’s sake, we would not let his dementia destroy us. I’m pleased to say it was a vow we both managed to keep.

Five tips that might help

1. Try to see it differently – the dementia journey isn’t black and white – there are grey areas – and this fact is bound to cause a difference of views. Accept that it’s a complicated condition and your whole family is affected by it. Your opinion isn’t necessarily the only one, or the best one.
2. Remember who this is about – think about the person with dementia. Your loved one deserves to know that their family is united and strong enough to face a crisis.
3. Get expert advice – if money is the issue, consider speaking to an independent financial adviser. A third party might help you come up with a plan (but make sure it’s one you all agree on!).
4. Be the first to apologise – even if you’re convinced you weren’t in the wrong! Sometimes the only way to move forward and change the family dynamic is by example. See the bigger picture and ask yourself: Would I rather be right or would I rather be happy?
5. Talk directly – lots of rows are the result of misunderstandings or interference from others. Limit the chance of this happening by agreeing to update each other regularly either face to face or on the phone – try to avoid emails as they can be misconstrued.

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