Many caregivers find it challenging to cope when their older adult has Alzheimer’s and fear of being alone. That fear can make your senior follow you around the house so you’re constantly in their sight. They might get upset if you go to the bathroom or take out the trash. It can also make it very difficult for you to leave the house – they might cry, become angry or mean, or repeatedly ask where you are.
When your senior doesn’t want you out of their sight, this behavior is called shadowing. Experts suggest that Alzheimer’s shadowing happens because the disease has caused them to make you the center of their world. They’re not doing it purposely to be difficult or to cause trouble.
Your older adult follows you closely to reassure themselves that that you’re there. You’re their lifeline and connection to the outside world. You care and provide for them and keep them safe from anything strange or confusing.
When they can’t see or touch you, your senior can get scared and anxious. Even if you’ve never done anything that would make them think you’d abandon them, they may become paranoid that you’ll leave and never come back.
The fear isn’t caused by anything you’ve done. It’s yet another terrible side effect of living with dementia. Incorporate these 5 techniques help you reduce the fear that causes shadowing and find different ways to cope with the behavior:
1. Include other trusted people.
One of the best ways to help your senior feel safe and secure even if you’re not there is to expand their world to include one or two more people. This needs to be done slowly so your older adult can grow to trust and rely on the “new” people and feel comfortable enough to be alone with them while you get some much-needed time away.
These additional people could be other family members, close friends, or professional caregivers. Start by having them come on a regular schedule to help while you’re with your older adult. Then, slowly ease them into doing more for your senior. Over time, your older adult will be ok with them taking over while you’re not around.
2. Involve them in repetitive, soothing activities when you need to step away.
Sometimes you just need time to do chores in the house without someone (literally) breathing down your neck. When this happens, ask your senior to “help” you and give them a soothing, repetitive task to keep them occupied and take their mind off their fear.
For example, if you need to cook dinner, ask them to sit at the kitchen table and sort a pile of forks and spoons, fold hand towels, smooth crumpled tissue paper, or organize the kitchen junk drawer. Any soothing, safe activity that doesn’t cause trouble will do. The goal isn’t to have your older adult accomplish the task correctly, it’s to keep their hands and mind happily occupied.
3. Distract and redirect.
Distracting and redirecting is a good technique to try in situations where you need to leave the house or if your senior has already become highly agitated because you left their sight.
First, find a way to gently validate what they’re saying. Even if it’s something crazy like “You hate me, you can’t wait to get away from me, and you’re abandoning me!” you could respond by calmly saying something like “Oh my, you must be feeling very upset.” This validates their feelings and avoids a bigger fight because you didn’t say that they’re wrong.
Next, find a way to distract them from their worry about you leaving them. Point out a pretty flower in the backyard, offer them a favorite drink or snack, or ask them for their help with a made-up task and walk together to another part of the house. Get them involved in an activity that they enjoy.
You or someone who’s helping out while you’re out may have to do this over and over again depending on how much fear and anxiety your older adult is feeling.
4. Make a recording of yourself.
Another way to soothe your senior when you can’t be right next to them is to have them listen or watch something you’ve recorded for them.
Maybe it’s a tape or MP3 of you reading their favorite book. Or you might make a video of you reading aloud or even of you doing regular chores. Sometimes just being able to hear or see you is enough of a comfort to get them through the time of separation.
5. Help them understand how long you’ll be gone.
Part of the problem is that seniors with Alzheimer’s lose their sense of time. A minute, a day, or a year might seem the same because they’ve lost the ability to keep track of time. So saying that you’ll just be gone for a minute might not even mean anything to them.
Try something simple like an egg timer to help them track time. For example, if you’re going to the bathroom, set the timer for the amount of time you’ll be gone – 5 minutes. Have your older adult hold the timer and let them know that when the buzzer goes off, that’s when you’ll be back. They’ll be able to watch the numbers count down and know exactly when you’ll return. This can also work for other quick chores like checking the mailbox or taking out the trash.