Speaking to an elderly loved one with dementia can be difficult and emotionally draining. Alzheimer’s and dementia can lead to conversations that don’t make sense, are inappropriate or uncomfortable, and may upset a family caregiver. However, over time, it’s important to adapt to the senior’s behavior, and understand that their condition doesn’t change who they are.
For senior caregivers, it’s important to always respond with patience. Here are some things to remember not to say to someone with dementia, and what you can say instead.
1. “You’re wrong”
For experienced caregivers, this one may seem evident. However, for someone who hasn’t dealt with loss of cognitive function before, it can be hard to go along with something a loved one says that clearly isn’t true. There’s no benefit to arguing, though, and it’s best to avoid upsetting a senior with dementia, who is already in a vulnerable emotional state due to confusion.
Instead, change the subject.
It’s best to distract, not disagree. If an elderly loved one makes a wrong comment, don’t try to fight them on it; just change the subject and talk about something else – ideally, something pleasant, to change their focus. There are plenty of things not to say to someone with dementia, but if there’s one to remember, it’s anything that sounds like “you’re wrong”.
2. “Do you remember…?”
This is a sentence that one can just let slip out by accident, without even realizing it. Family caregivers will often ask a senior if they remember things. Of course, the answer is usually no, because forgetfulness is the most common symptom of dementia. Even still, it can be hard to avoid asking things like, “do you remember (family member/friend)?” or, “what did you do today?”. This can lead to embarrassment and sadness as a senior realizes they’ve lost memories.
Instead, say: “I remember…”
There’s no way to completely avoid talking about the past, and in fact, it can be a joyful experience for family members to reflect on old memories. However, try and change your approach to be sensitive your loved one’s condition. When going over things that have happened, instead say, “I remember when we used to…” or “I remember when we went to that restaurant…” and so forth.
3. “They passed away.”
It’s an unfortunately common and heartbreaking occurrence: A senior will ask about a late loved one as if they’re still around. They may be upset that the person isn’t calling or visiting, or ask where they are. Telling them that their spouse, friend, or other loved one has passed away won’t help, especially in the later stages of dementia, as they will likely be extremely hurt by the news and may not even believe you. Even if you tell them the person has died and they believe you, they’ll most likely forget soon after, and you’ll have to repeat the process all over again.
Unfortunately, there’s no answer for what to do every time this situation arises. It’s not unlikely someone with dementia will ask about a deceased loved one many times. In the case that they outright ask if the person has died, it may be best to be truthful. Other times, it may be best to change the topic of conversation altogether, as reminding them of their loved one’s passing won’t work and will only hurt them. You could offer another explanation for why the person isn’t around, or tell them they’ll see them soon, then gently change the subject. Every time is different, and the decision for how to respond is ultimately up to what you feel is best.
4. “I told you…”
Having to repeat things should be expected when caring for someone with dementia. You may find yourself telling your elderly loved one something, only for them to forget and ask the same question once again. In this case, saying ‘I already told you’ can be hurtful, reminding the person of their disease and confusing them further.
Instead, repeat what you said.
It will take patience and you may get frustrated, but remember that their forgetfulness isn’t their fault. Repeat whatever it is you’ve already told them, and say it just as politely as the first time. Otherwise, informing them that it’s something they’ve already asked about will just make them feel like they did something wrong, even if they don’t understand what it was.
5. “What do you want to eat?”
Open-ended questions like this can cause a lot of trouble for a senior with Alzheimer’s or dementia. This is especially true if the question involves remembering something, such as, “what did you do yesterday?”, though in truth, even something as simple as “where do you want to go?” could cause distress.
Instead, say: “Would you like to eat some fruit?”
If you’re going to ask a question, try to form it in a way that can be answered with a simple yes or no. Avoiding open-ended questions will take the pressure off your older loved one, as they won’t be forced to try and remember something they can’t, or make a decision.
6. “Come, let’s get your shoes on and get to the car, we need to go to the store for some groceries.”
This sentence contains a lot of commands, and someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia won’t be able to process information at the same rate as you. This can lead to confusion. Try to avoid long sentences.
Instead, go one step at a time.
Use simple language (but don’t infantilize), and use shorter sentences to break it up into single-step commands. For the example above, you could say “Let’s get your shoes on.” Then later follow with, “let’s go to the car now,” and so on.
7. “Her dementia is getting worse.”
There are things you shouldn’t say to someone with dementia, but also things you shouldn’t say about them. Most importantly, never talk about a senior in the same room as you as if they aren’t there; just because they may not be silent doesn’t mean they aren’t listening. Even if they’re not responding to the things you say, it’s best to assume they can understand when you’re talking about them.
Instead, leave the room.
Simply leaving the room to discuss the senior or their condition is best. This avoids causing them pain by speaking as if they’re already gone, even though they’re still around.
If you have a loved one living with Alzheimer’s or dementia and are considering hiring a professional caregiver, please feel free to contact us today. We offer full- or part-time care services for the elderly in Montreal.