One night I was helping Ed, my Romanian life partner of 30 years, pay his bills. He’d been showing signs of dementia and always needed assistance with that task. Unfortunately, I put the stamp on an envelope a little askew. When Ed noticed, he lost it.
“Marie,” he hollered, putting his glass of vodka down forcefully and slamming his fist on the table. “Look what you did. It’s crooked. You r-r-ruined a perfectly good stamp!”
“Ed,” I said loudly, caught off guard and angered by his outburst, “It doesn’t matter. The post office doesn’t care if it’s on straight. They just care that it’s on.”
“No!” he screamed, standing up and leaning over me. “You know you are wrong!”
I later learned that this scene could have been avoided had I simply agreed that putting the stamp on crooked was wrong, apologized for it and promised to be more careful in the future. But I was too proud to say I was wrong when I knew I was right.
The effects of Alzheimer’s on the personalities of those living with the disease vary widely. Some people are sweet and easy to get along with, and at the other end of the spectrum others are extremely difficult and temperamental. Ed fell into the latter category, at least during that period.
The argument about the stamp was just one more in a long stream of petty but bitter arguments we’d been having for months. These included our monumental fights about how to peel a potato, how I should put on my coat, what kind of t-shirts I should wear and not leaving my purse on the living room sofa. And the list went on and on.
Previously, when we had a disagreement we’d argue long and loudly, but when it was over, it was over. We had a lot of small arguments and we typically had a big blow up around twice a year.
But at that time, we began having major ugly arguments on average once a week, and he didn’t get over them so easily. He had angry outbursts during which he would yell at me, tell me to get out, slam down the phone on me and refuse to talk to me for days. He even made scenes like those in public.
The only way to move forward after these displays of anger was to send him a letter of apology, even when I had done nothing wrong. That rubbed me the wrong way. I was very proud. I was right and I liked to be right. I hated apologizing — pretending to have done something wrong when I hadn’t.
In desperation, I had lunch with Irene, a friend who was a geriatric social worker. After venting for quite some time, I told her that I had to find a way to end the bitter arguments.
Irene gave me three pieces of advice –and it was good advice, although in the beginning I didn’t like any of it. Here are her guidelines:
1. Don’t even bring up topics you think may upset him.
2. You can’t win an argument with a person who has Alzheimer’s. Agree with whatever he says — no matter how absurd — unless there’s a compelling reason not to, and there rarely is.
3. If he does start to get agitated, quickly change the subject.
As I thought about these “rules,” I realized that following them would change our relationship significantly. We wouldn’t be able to discuss politics. Our views differed so much that it would violate rule number one. And I couldn’t talk about my job or personal problems because he’d get upset if I didn’t take his advice. That would violate rule number two. And quite seriously, I couldn’t imagine myself agreeing with everything he said because he was so often wrong. I couldn’t imagine bowing my head and going along with whatever nonsense came out of his mouth.
“I can’t promise following these guidelines will stop all the fights,” Irene said. “But it’ll help. Why don’t you try it for a while and see what happens?”
“But Irene,” I said. “I can’t agree with him when he says stupid things.”
“When that happens, just ask yourself, ‘Do I want to be right or do I want to have peace?’”
That was a difficult question. If I followed her advice it meant I wouldn’t be able to be honest. No matter how much I disagreed with him, I’d have to pretend to concur. I’d have to swallow that pride of mine.
Nonetheless, I did take her advice, and once I mastered the rules (which took quite a bit of time), it did work. It worked like a miracle. The frequency and intensity of our arguments declined significantly. For the most part we returned to our previous easy-going relationship with just a mild disagreement now and then.
I also noticed that when other people didn’t follow these guidelines when interacting with Ed, ugly arguments typically ensued. I finally learned it was better to have peace than to be right. It really was best to let go of my pride.
Marie Marley is the author of the award-winning ‘Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer’s and Joy’ and the Co-Author of ‘Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers.‘ Her website (ComeBackEarlyToday.com) contains a wealth of helpful information for Alzheimer’s caregivers.