Bursack: 'Agree' with mom, then distract her
Dear Carol: My mom has dementia. She insists that her dead aunt and grandma are still alive and when I tell her they are dead, she gets angry and then cries as if they died yesterday. She's shocked that no one told her that they are gone, but of ...
Dear Carol: My mom has dementia. She insists that her dead aunt and grandma are still alive and when I tell her they are dead, she gets angry and then cries as if they died yesterday. She's shocked that no one told her that they are gone, but of course she knew years ago. Also, she starts packing her clothes to get ready to go back "home," which is in another country. She's been in this country for 35 years, yet she insists she is only here to visit. My dad has to hide suitcases to keep her from packing. How can I convince her that she is home and her family is here? - Juana
Dear Juana: With dementia, particularly Alzheimer's disease, people mentally go back in time. Your mom is thinking of her aunt and grandma as they were many years ago, likely when your mom was young. The news that they have died is very new and real to her. As you've seen, you can tell her repeatedly that they're gone, but each time she must go through the grief process as if the deaths just happened.
Continuing to give her the unvarnished truth is painful for everyone. Try to validate her concern with some thoughtful expressions of understanding, and then say that she'll see her aunt and grandma soon. Follow that with an attempt to distract her with some music she enjoys or a walk outside.
The same idea holds true for her wanting to go home, which is a common problem. Many people can't figure out which "home" the person with Alzheimer's wants to go to, but since your mother is packing for her birth country, you at least know that much. She wants her childhood home, which is often the case.
Not much will change, no matter what you do, but again, validation and distraction may help. Let her know that you understand that she wants to go home and then move on to another topic to redirect her thinking.
This approach doesn't always work, but there aren't a lot of choices. Sometimes she'll be easier to distract and redirect than others. However, you've learned firsthand that arguing gets you nowhere, so you may as well do what you can to "agree" with her, and then distract her.
Do check with her doctor about medication for anxiety, which may be at the root of some of this. No matter what you do, it's tough. Watch your dad's health and your own. Like most caregivers, you are both at risk for stress-induced health issues.
Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com . She can be reached at email@example.com .