Dear Carol: Mom died two years ago, and while my dad had already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he seemed to accept her death because she had been in terrible pain from cancer. Recently, though, he’s started asking for her as if she’s still alive and it’s heartbreaking. When I remind him that she died, he grieves as if it’s new information. Later, he’ll ask for her again as though we never discussed it.
It’s breaking my heart to see him keep repeating this new-to-him grief. I know that you’ve said before that people should not contradict someone with dementia. I get that under most circumstances and try not to, but how do you make that idea work with this? You might have said but nothing comes to mind. — EP.
Dear EP: I’m deeply sorry about both your mom’s death and your dad’s dementia. That’s a lot to handle.
It’s true that contradicting or arguing with someone who has dementia is counterproductive, so give yourself points for that. What’s happened with your dad is that at the time of your mom’s death, his dementia was not that advanced, so his brain was still able to retain and access the then-new information that his wife had died. Now, while his older memories of your mom are reachable, newer ones are not, and sadly, that includes the information that she died. Since he has no memory of her death, it’s natural for him to wonder where she is and then receive the awful information that she died as though it’s new.
It’s normal for you to think that if he just tried a little harder to remember, he could. But that’s like telling someone with paralyzed legs that if they’d just try harder, they could walk. Hard as it is, you’ll need to join him where he is in his reality.
So, what do you say? Your exact words will depend on the situation, and like most things we do when someone has dementia, your response will need to change with the circumstances. But there’s a pattern.
If he asks for your mom, you can say, “Tell me what you love most about her!” He’s likely to leap at the chance and be in a slightly different mindset when he’s done talking. This gives you a chance to try to distract him with something like a movie together, listening to music or enjoying a walk around the yard.
If he asks again later, you could say, “I think she’s busy right now, but you’ll see her soon.” Some people stress the hobbies or work of a deceased spouse and say something like, “You know that she’s got to have her craft meetings. Let’s go see what’s up for supper.” It’s easier to respond if you plan ahead since you know this will probably happen again.
What you are doing is being compassionate. You won’t always win this battle so there will be times of grief, but you’ll do as well as any of us.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.