About Alzheimer's


Living With Alzheimer's >> Behavior Basics | 04.24.15

Shadowing: the fear of being left alone

Some caregivers find themselves being constantly “shadowed” by a person with dementia. Like a small child afraid to let his parent out of sight, the person will follow their caregiver constantly, sometimes even refusing to let go of their hand. For caregivers seeking any degree of normalcy, solitude or alone time, shadowing can be an overwhelming distraction.

Why is this happening?

Sadly, the world inside the mind of someone with dementia can be a fearful place. As memory fades, so do the certainties of life: a sense of security and purpose; a feeling of control; and the comfort of knowing that you are in a safe place. To the person with dementia, a caregiver may represent the one sure thing they can still rely on — a protector and an anchor of certainty. Their fear of the unknown causes them to cling to the known.

How should you respond?

Every caregiver needs time for themselves, and shadowing can make them feel smothered and trapped. Any moments you can regain for yourself will help improve your well-being.

Try to give yourself a respite whenever possible by having a neighbor or friend take your loved one for a walk or another type of break. Regular visits to a local adult day care center can also provide you with some time for needed solitude.

If fear is the driver for shadowing behavior, then reassurance and familiarity should be used to address that fear. That calls for predictable daily activities along with constant words of support and comfort to distract the person from their feelings of anxiety when you are not around.

Here are some specific strategies to help reduce shadowing:

  • Involve the person in a meaningful activity to engage their attention. This can be a game such as a puzzle, a simple household chore or another distraction.
  • Substitute your presence via an audio or video recording that contains your voice or someone else known to the person. The recording can be a familiar story or some other comforting message the person can enjoy.
  • Music and movies that are favorites from the person’s past can also be used to create a comforting, familiar feel. A soothing music playlist can be very effective in keeping the person calm and free of fear.
  • Snack therapy has been recommended by some Alzheimer’s experts as a way to distract shadowing behavior. In particular, giving the person a snack of cereal or gum can offer a useful diversion. Make sure the snack you choose does not present a choking hazard.
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