‘What if This is My Destiny?’ Children of Alzheimer’s Patients Sometimes Fear Future Diagnosis

When dealing with any recurring fear, “Part of it is accepting a certain powerlessness and lack of control exists,” said Dr. Timothy Scarella, instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “That is particularly true with Alzheimer’s: You might get this despite your best efforts.” Worrying about it in the meantime can take away from a person’s enjoyment of their healthy years.

As is true for many other kinds of worry, psychologists recommend a basic mindfulness practice. Many activities qualify: meditation, prayer, movement like yoga or qigong, or even hiking or walking — anything that encourages slowing down and observing the present moment, without judgment or shame.

When a fear causes significant distress or interferes with daily life, professional guidance may be needed. When Ms. Passarela, the mental health counselor, sees clients who are convinced they are experiencing Alzheimer’s symptoms, she challenges that thought: What evidence do you have that the thought is true? What evidence do you have that it’s not true?

Through therapy, Ms. Barber, the software consulting manager in Oregon, has learned tools to manage her worry. Sometimes, she will take a walk around her neighborhood. If the thoughts persist, she writes them down to acknowledge what she’s experiencing. Then she pushes the paper aside, as a physical sign she’s moving on.

When Ms. Perez is anxious, she prays the rosary, and a calm settles over her. Recently, she realized that alongside the pain that has accompanied her mother’s illness, there have been unexpected gifts. Whatever happens in the future, she’s healthier now, thanks to lifestyle changes that her mother — and her mom’s illness — have inspired, Ms. Perez said. “Even if she’s not mentally here, she’s still helping me.”


Dawn MacKeen is a reporter based in Los Angeles and the author of “The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey,” which chronicles her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian genocide.

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