Jan 20, 2015

Don't Tell Mom She Has Dementia

People often ask me things like,
  • “Should I tell my mom that she has dementia?” 
  • Or, “Should I tell my dad with dementia that his sister just died?”
Don't Tell Mom She Has Dementia | Alzheimer's Reading Room

My short answer is no. Don’t tell.

If you do, you are engaging in what we call reality orientation. Reality orientation is the enemy of dementia care. It means that you are attempting to pull a person with dementia into our reality.


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By Rachael Wonderlin
+Alzheimer's Reading Room

Here are five examples of questions I get as a memory care specialist on a regular basis.

1. Should I tell my mom that she has dementia? No.

Picture this: you are perfectly happy and you feel as though your mind is intact. Your son visits you one day and says, “Mom, you’re losing your memory. You believe things that just aren’t true.”

How would you feel? Would you be angry and confused? Of course you would! You are sure that your brain works perfectly and you’re convinced that your son is just being mean. How could he say something so cruel?

2. Should I tell my dad with dementia that his sister just died? Should I take him to the funeral? No and no. 

Your dad has dementia and he lives in a different, and probably happier, reality than we do. Telling him that his sister has passed away will cause him a great deal of pain, and he will most likely forget the information soon after you have told him.

He will still feel sad and anxious, but he will not know why. Bringing him to the funeral, or telling him “the truth” may feel like a good idea, but it is just not fair to a person with dementia.

3. My older brother has dementia and thinks that our parents are still alive. Should I tell him the truth? No.

Why would you want to upset him? His reality is a much better one than ours!

In his world, your parents are alive. Why would you take that away from him? While you’re with him, enjoy his reality. We have all lost people in our lives—why not imagine that they are still with us for just a little while longer?

4.My aunt has dementia and asks about going home. Should I tell her that she lives in a dementia care community? No, no, no.

I have watched many a family member tell their loved one with dementia this “truth.” Let me tell you: it never goes well. (Unless you think screaming, crying, and fighting are positive outcomes.) Imagine that you live in a dementia care community.

You are content, but it is usually because you believe that you are only there for a doctor’s appointment or a visit. Your children visit one day and tell you, “Dad! You live here! You can’t come home with us, don’t you remember that you have dementia?”

Stop for a moment and imagine how that would make you feel.

5. My parents got divorced years ago, but my mom still asks when my dad is coming home. Should I remind her that they’re divorced? No! 

Your mom misses your dad. She is recalling the happier times in their marriage—let her live in those memories. Talk to her about how hilarious it was when your dad burned the Thanksgiving turkey, or that time that your whole family went on a cross-country road trip.

Your loved one with dementia lives in a different world than you do. A lot times, it is a happier world full of family, friends, and beloved careers. When you are visiting with your loved one, enjoy his or her reality. You will both be happier for it. I guarantee it.


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Rachael Wonderlin
Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s of Science in Gerontology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She works as a Memory Care Program Coordinator and Manager at Clare Bridge of Burlington in Burlington, NC.

Rachael also writes on her own blog at Dementia By Day.


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