How Does Alzheimer's Disease Impact Relationships?

A major medical diagnosis can impact relationships of all kinds, and a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is no different. A person with Alzheimer’s disease may have a wide variety of relationships: intimate, friendships, caregiver relationships, and more – and all can be touched by the diagnosis. Be cognizant of this so that everyone is able to get the support they need in order to maintain fulfilling and healthy relationships.

Intimate relationships

Alzheimer’s disease can affect both the person living with the condition and their partner in an intimate relationship. The person with Alzheimer’s may be upset in the early stages about what this means for the future, the changes in their memory, how they relate to their partner, and how they are worried about what happens when the disease progresses.1 Their partner may find themselves pulling away sometimes, both emotionally and physically, or wonder about their capacity for caregiving and supporting the patient.1 As the disease progresses, the patient may become depressed or aggressive in the relationship, act out in angry ways, forget about the nature of the relationship, or even fall in love with someone else – all of which can be devastating for the partner.

Partners should stay calm and try to be understanding with the person with Alzheimer’s, even though it may be difficult. Reassurance is calming and can be important as the disease gets more severe. Here are some coping tips for partners that might be helpful1:

  • Find a support group of partners and/or caregivers where concerns can be shared with people in a similar position
  • Remind yourself of the positive aspects of the relationship
  • Talk with a counselor or a trusted individual about what’s going on, any challenges that are occurring, or the changes that are happening

A person with Alzheimer’s disease may lose interest in having sex or being physically intimate, due to either the illness or medication side effects, but there are other ways that partners can be close. Find new ways to spend time together and other ways to show affection.1 On the opposite end of the spectrum, some individuals with Alzheimer’s disease are hypersexual, or overly interested in sex.1 They may attempt to seduce others or act out in inappropriate ways – this is a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. Reassure the person, give them a hug, or show other kinds of affection. If this becomes an issue, talk with their doctor about the behavior; sometimes medication is warranted.

Friendships and other kinds of relationships

Sometimes a major diagnosis can impact other kinds of relationships, like friendships. Some people aren’t able to handle adversity, while others might be unsure of what to say or what to do when they hear the news. Understandably, this can be hurtful and further isolate someone with Alzheimer’s. It’s helpful to reassure the person with Alzheimer’s that it’s not their fault, and they have support in other ways. Sometimes people need some time for the news to sink in or do their own research to feel comfortable around the person newly diagnosed.

A person newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease may feel left out of conversations or important discussions because others might feel they’re not up for the discussions or not able to handle them. This loss of autonomy and respect is hard. Adjusting to a life where they might not be able to drive or do things as independently as they once used to can be upsetting, as well.2 They may fear they are becoming a burden on others or fear for their future, becoming isolated and withdrawn from friends, social groups, and caregivers.

Encourage open and honest communication with the person with Alzheimer’s in relationships of all kinds: caregiving, intimate, and family and friend relationships. Through honest discussion, many fears can be talked through and realize they’re unfounded, and the person can get the reassurance and support they need. As Alzheimer’s disease progresses and cognition and communication are impaired, relationships will change naturally over time. It’s important that the person with Alzheimer’s feels supported, reassured, and loved, above all else.

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Written by: Jaime Rochelle Herndon | Last reviewed: June 2019