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How Family Relationships and Roles Change After an Alzheimer's Diagnosis

Sherry Christiansen
By Sherry ChristiansenMay 7, 2019

If you have a parent or senior loved one who has been newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, you may have witnessed the impact it has had on each family member. Families may react differently to the initial news that their loved one has been diagnosed with such a severe disease and each person in the family may require a different amount of time to fully acclimate.

Learn more about how the disease can affect family relationships and how roles can change after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

How an Alzheimer’s Diagnosis Affects Family Relationships

See how an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can affect adult children, spouses and younger family members as well as the ways that families can best support each other during this time:

Adult Children

The adult children of parents who have received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis will understandably have their own difficulties when adjusting to the diagnosis, like the stress that comes along with the role reversal. This means they must take on their parent’s responsibilities, which can lead to feelings that range from denial to guilt.

The response of adult children depends, in part, on what the relationship was like before the diagnosis. Was the adult child more dependent on the parent for emotional and/or financial support? These adult children may have a particularly tough time accepting the fact that they can no longer lean on their parent; to take it a step further, they must now become the parent. It’s a lot to swallow.

How to Help Adult Children

To support adult children, family members and friends should consider:

  • Encouraging the adult child to seek out a support group
  • Giving plenty of listening, reassurance and understanding without judgment
  • Offering respite care
  • Taking on some of the many tasks required, such as balancing the checkbook, paying the bills, providing transportation to medical appointments and more


The spouse of a person with the disease will likely have some very intense feelings in reaction to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The news may impact many different aspects of a couple’s life.  Often, spouses go through a deep sense of loss of future plans. This can trigger depression and sadness. Other changes that couples may experience after a diagnosis can include changes in the way that couples relate to each other, challenges in a level of health and a reversal of roles.

The outcome of an early Alzheimer’s diagnosis is not always so grim in couples, however. Some people report that they are closer than they were before because they may spend more time together than they did before the diagnosis. Of course, as time goes by, the disease will force spouses to accept that their loved one has changed. To be able to cope with the enormity of the disease and changes in a spouse’s life, it’s vital that the spouse seeks help and support early on.

How to Help a Spouse

Family members and friends can pitch in to help with the many tasks that will fall on the shoulders of the spouse, like:

  • Housework
  • Meal planning and shopping
  • Personal care (which will evolve in time, as the various stages of the disease arise)
  • Safety and supervision
  • Transportation needs (including many medical appointments)

In addition to helping spouses deal with the many jobs they will need to take on after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, it’s important to also help the spouse by:

  • Assisting with finding a local Alzheimer’s support group for spouses
  • Assisting with finding a caregiver or a memory care community
  • Guiding the spouse towards professional counseling if needed
  • Supporting the spouse with encouragement and understanding

Young Family Members

Teenagers or young children who have a grandparent or a parent who received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis also need help and support. They need someone to listen to their concerns and answer their questions about the disease. Often, children and teenagers feel a wide range of emotions and are dealing with anger, fear or sadness as well.

How to Help Younger Family Members

Family members and friends can help the younger members of the family by:

  • Connecting them with a peer support group of young people
  • Encouraging them to talk about their feelings and ask questions
  • Guiding them in identifying some fun activities they can do with their loved one with Alzheimer’s (like listen to old music or look at family pictures together)
  • Providing age-specific books and educational websites to help them learn about the disease

Families Working Together

Working together as a family is the optimal scenario when dealing with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Getting together for regular family meetings on an ongoing basis helps each person to have an opportunity to communicate what’s going on. Sharing ideas on how to handle solutions and discussing what works and what doesn’t work is an ideal way to structure the dialogue during family meetings.

Families that are struggling to work well together may want to consider finding a geriatric care manager or mediator to help the family identify their loved one’s needs and divide the many tasks involved in caring for them.

How did your relationship or role change within your family after a parent or senior loved one’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.

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Sherry Christiansen

Sherry Christiansen

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