If your parent has dementia, chances are you know the frustration of wondering how to communicate. Especially when your parent says something that’s simply not true. Or totally unreasonable. For example, a woman may say, “I’m worried that my husband won’t come to pick me up,” when her husband has been dead for years. Or she refuses to take a shower, when she’s always been fastidiously clean.
Two tactics can help.
Tactic #1: Refuse to correct. It’s better to be silent than be right, since the conflict you set up in correcting her increases tension between you. If she believes that her dead husband is still alive and starts looking for him, it’s best not to say, “Your husband died.” Even though it’s true. That statement can either trigger a resurgence of grief or an argument over whether her spouse is dead or alive. Instead, you can either say something neutral, like “Oh,” or “Tell me about him” or “You must love him very much.”
If your parent makes a misstatement with a health care provider, resist the impulse to tell the doctor, “It wasn’t that way,” or “She’s wrong about that.” I’ve seen lots of well-intentioned adult children correct their parent in front of the doctor, only to spark an anger attack because the parent feels disrespected. Doctors and nurses know that the report of a person with dementia isn’t going to be 100% accurate. Not even close. You can make any needed corrections later with the provider in private.
Tactic #2: Remember the Five Minute Rule. Caregivers who work with people who have dementia know their memory is often short. That’s why they refer to this as the Five Minute Rule. Your parent can refuse to eat, to take a shower or to get dressed. Rather than fighting, which ups the stress level, it’s best to leave and return in a little while to make the request once again. Often time will change their reaction.
Can you think of other strategies for communicating with a parent who has dementia?