Things You Shouldn’t Say to Someone with Alzheimer’s or Dementia

Alzheimer’s and other dementias are excruciatingly tricky for everyone. When it comes to communicating with someone living with dementia or Alzheimer’s, the most important thing to remember is to meet them where they are. My dad suffered from dementia, and I remember staff in the memory care unit he was staying in trying to tell him white lies to get him to do what they wanted. My dad was a very intelligent man and the outcome of this type of coercion usually led to physical or verbal pushback. I spoke with the staff to reminded them that he is not stupid- he has dementia. Clearly, this was not what anyone wanted. Each person is going to be different, but we’ve lined out some do’s and do not’s to start you off. So be patient with them and give yourself breaks when necessary.

Condescend them.
Just because they are living with dementia doesn’t mean they aren’t a grown adult. When caring for someone living with dementia, it can be difficult to remember that they’re the same but different now. So unless previously used, try and stay away from baby talk and pet names like “honey” or “love.” Someone living with dementia will sometimes do things that are downright nuts to you and me. To them, it makes sense, so instead of getting flustered, try and approach the fact that your dad is currently using a potted plant as his bathroom with a smile.

Correct them
You reason with your kids, your partner, your co-workers, so for some, it’s natural to correct someone. But for someone living with Alzheimer’s or Dementia, this usually ends in an argument, which is something you’ll never win, or they’ll end up feeling embarrassed, confused and often reminded of their condition. Instead, listen, comfort and try to divert their attention to something else.

Something that I’ve commonly heard is “I want to go home” from a senior who is in fact home. Instead of just insisting they are home, offer them comfort and reassurance. Usually, when someone says that they would like to go home, they are feeling anxious or scared. If they like physical touch offer them a hug or hold their hand, or even just a comfortable blanket can help. You might also listen carefully to what they are saying. When asked about home are they referring to the home where they raised their children or maybe even the family home where they grew up. If you can figure out what they are talking about you can go with them on this journey instead of fighting with the inaccuracies of what they are saying right now. Maybe this is something entirely unrelated, but you can carefully guide the conversation onto other topics. To do so ask questions like “Tell me more about your house?” or “What’s your favorite part of your home?”

I know it is not an easy task answering the same question over and over again. Or being told you’re wrong even though we all know Reagan isn’t president. But responding with “I already told you that” is only going to make everyone feel bad. Your person doesn’t realize they’ve asked you that question 100 times today alone. And while it’s entirely understandable to feel frustrated and snap at them, you don’t want to feel regret and beat yourself up about it later. So instead redirect the conversation, start a new activity to distract or even just take a break. Taking a quick walk around the block, trip to the store, or going out to grab a coffee. Whatever it is, don’t feel like you can’t take small breaks throughout the day if it helps.

Ask “remember when?”
Jogging someone’s memory can seem like a harmless remark you don’t think twice about. Questions like “What did you have for breakfast?” is a simple question asked every day. But for someone living with dementia, asking “do you remember what…” can be very difficult if they can’t remember. It can be frustrating, painful and even embarrassing for the person. This doesn’t mean you should never speak about the past- in fact, this is what most people remember best and can be quite enjoyable. But don’t put them on the spot, try to reminisce yourself instead of ask. Using a phrase like, tell me about it can be helpful, and it does not put the person on the spot.

“Remember when Chris and I would…”

By recalling an old memory yourself, you can drop additional cues that may help jog their memory without putting your person on the spot. This way your senior can search through their memories at their own pace without feeling rushed or embarrassed, and give input if they like.

“It’s the tone that make’s the music.”

All in all, try and love the person that you have in front of you. This person may not be the same person you grew up with, and it may require some time to grieve. But the person in front of you still deserves all the love, attention and patience you can give so take advantage of the time you have with them.