What Not to Say When A Parent Has Dementia

When dementia strikes, you will likely observe many changes with your loved one’s behavior, language, memory, and ability to perform familiar tasks. One of the areas that dementia will impact dramatically is communication. You may notice that your mom or dad struggles to find certain words, doesn’t seem to understand what you say, and can no longer communicate the way they once could.

Changes in how a person communicates can be very frustrating, adding greatly to the challenges of caregiving. In order to manage day to day and minimize unnecessary stress, you will need to adjust the way you communicate.

Simple changes can make all the difference. If your mom or dad has dementia, eliminating seven simple phrases from your conversations with them will make a world of difference.

  • “Mom it’s me.” It can be sobering, disorienting, and traumatic when you realize that your parent doesn’t recognize you. Make a simple change by introducing yourself and explaining your relationship. Help your parent out and reduce the potential distress of not knowing you by saying, “Hi, Mom, it’s Mary, your daughter.”
  • “Mom, who am I?” This is even worse than saying “Mom, it’s me.” It’s undignified to put a person on the spot and test them to see if they can come up with your name. Unfortunately, it’s very common. Other people will want to quiz your parent. If this happens, help your mom save face by saying, “Of course, she knows who I am. I’m your daughter Mary.”
  • “Remember, I told you, dad…” No, your dad doesn’t remember. It is time to stop asking him to do what he can’t do, which is remember!
  • “You told me that story a gazillion times.” When your mom asks you if she ever told you the story of the time she drove across the country with her best friend, don’t be exasperated. Instead, use the phrase “Tell me more.” Encourage her to tell you the stories and be willing to listen to them over and over.
  • “Dad, calm down, everything is okay.” If your dad is upset, telling him to calm down will probably not help him to calm down. Instead, acknowledge how he is feeling. Say “You look really upset” or “You’re angry, aren’t you?” so he knows you understand that something is wrong.
  • “Mom, I didn’t steal your purse!” Sometimes dementia can cause a person to accuse you of wrongdoing. It’s important to recognize that this is the disease talking and not your mom. When she can’t find her purse, she is doing her best to understand a situation that doesn’t make sense to her. Instead of lashing out in self-defense which is a normal reaction, offer to help her look for the purse. When you find it, say something such as, “I put it away for safekeeping. I won’t do that again.”
  • “I’ve told you ten times that your doctor’s appointment is tomorrow at 2:00.” If you tell your mom that she has a doctor’s appointment tomorrow at 2:00 and she asks you repeatedly when it is because she can’t remember, avoid sharing information too far in advance. Let her know you are taking her to the appointment just before it is time to leave. 

Changing what you say can take some practice, but if you are willing to try these new approaches, it will set you up for more positive interactions with your loved one.