Caregiving and Ambiguous Loss: When Your Loved One Is Mentally Absent

Mike Olmos by Mike Olmos | Licensed since 2010
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This article was updated on: 09/09/2018

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Are you a caregiver for a family member who suffers from dementia or another health condition that affects memory, cognitive abilities, or personality? Along with the many challenges of caregiving, including emotional or financial factors, you and other family members may also cope with something called “ambiguous loss.” The National Library of Medicine defines one type of ambiguous loss as a situation where a loved one is physically present but psychologically absent, such as when caring for a person with a brain injury or condition like Alzheimer’s disease.

When caring for someone with a condition that impacts memory or personality, it can feel like the person in your care isn’t the same individual that you remember from the past. This aspect of caregiving can be as painful, if not more so, as the day-to-day physical challenges of managing that person’s health.

Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia can change a person’s personality and impair cognitive function; it isn’t unusual to hear caregivers say they feel as if their loved one is gone, even though the individual still survives in an impaired state. It may seem like the person you remember is gone or that the person that you care for looks like your loved one but behaves like a stranger. According to research published on The National Library of Medicine, this loss can profoundly impact the family. In situations of ambiguous loss, the impact can feel as great as a physical loss.

Resources for caregiving and coping with ambiguous loss

Many people who care for loved ones with long-term or chronic illnesses underestimate the impact that caregiving can have on their own physical and psychological health. According to Womenshealth.gov, caregivers may start to show stress symptoms linked to anxiety and depression, including feeling overwhelmed, having difficulty sleeping, or weight gain or loss. Female caregivers have a greater risk than men of developing health problems related to caregiving.

Whether or not your loved one has Medicare, Medicare.com has many resources to help caregivers handle some of the challenges of caring for elderly parents and/or older adults with long-term, chronic health conditions. Take a look at our library of caregiver resources to get started, where you’ll find answers to commonly asked questions on caregiving, including:

If you’re caring for someone with Medicare

If your loved one has Medicare because of age or disability, it’s important to understand how these benefits can help with medical costs. Medicare.com’s coverage guide can provide a helpful starting place if you’re new to Medicare and want an overview of how it works:

  • Original Medicare, Part A and Part B, is the federally administered health program that covers a broad range of medical and hospital services.
  • Part C, also known as Medicare Advantage, offers another way to receive at least the same level of benefits as Original Medicare. Instead of getting coverage through the federal government, benefits are administered through a health plan offered by Medicare-approved private insurance companies.
  • Part D covers prescription drugs that aren’t covered by Part A and Part B (generally, these are medications that doctors prescribe to fill at the pharmacy and take home). Original Medicare beneficiaries need to get Part D coverage with a separate stand-alone plan. If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, it’s often available as part of the health plan.
  • Medicare Supplement insurance policies can help fill in the gaps for certain medical and hospital services that Part A and Part B either don’t fully cover or don’t cover at all, such as copayments, coinsurance, deductibles, or overseas emergency health coverage.

If you provide caregiving for someone with Medicare, finding the right plan options for your loved one may help relieve some stress. I may be able to help you figure out coverage options. To ask for a personalized email or phone call, use the links below. You are also welcome to click the Compare Plans Now button to begin researching different Medicare plan options on your own.

For more information on ambiguous loss and caregiving:

National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, “The experience of ambiguous loss in families of brain injured ICU patients,” accessed February 16, 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20236433

Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Caregiver stress,” accessed February 16, 2017. http://womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/caregiver-stress.html

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