Dementia and Racism

Updated: Oct 6


There are millions of older adults living with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States and the majority are cared for by family members. If you’re a son or daughter looking after a parent with dementia, it’s likely you will face many surprising situations that you never expected to deal with. Through your role as a caregiver, there will be opportunities to learn not only about the condition, but also about your parent.


You may think you know everything there is to know about your mom or dad, but what if you discover something shocking? Like the fact that your parent is racist?


You may wonder how this revelation could come about. Well, understanding how dementia damages the brain is a good place to start. Dementia causes brain cells to deteriorate and eventually die which results in the common symptoms of dementia including changes to behavior, judgement, and personality. Your loved one may say or do things out of character that will have you scratching your head. Their language may also be affected and there’s two ends to this spectrum. On one hand, your loved one may struggle to find certain words to express themselves and on the other hand, they may easily blurt out words or phrases that are inappropriate at best and horrifying at worst. When this happens, we say that the person doesn’t have a filter.


For example, you’ve probably heard stories where a person with Alzheimer’s said out loud that someone is fat or stupid. Sometimes it can be considered funny. Everyone laughs with no real harm caused to anyone.


But what if the comments are racist? In 2020, it’s no longer a laughing matter when your loved one makes derogatory remarks, jokes or slurs about a racial or ethnic group.


It begs the question: Is your parent really a racist, or is the dementia causing them to ‘look’ racist when that’s not really the case? Were they always racist and now you’re just realizing for the first time that they’ve hidden it their entire life and they can no longer conceal it? Or were they an Archie Bunker-like figure all along and this behavior is par for the course?


These are difficult questions to answer. The unsettling reality is that today your parent is behaving in racist ways, so what can you do about it?


First, as challenging as it will be, it’s important to accept that efforts to enlighten your loved one on their offensive behavior or language will likely be futile. They probably won’t understand why there’s anything disturbing about their views or beliefs, and they may feel it’s within their rights to say whatever they want.


The fact that they have dementia will only amplify their inability to see things from your point of view and the current climate that we live in. You can listen and try to educate and correct them, but they may not remember the conversation and may just repeat the same comments tomorrow. Be patient and realize that the condition prohibits them from learning and comprehending new information.


What can you do instead? Use it as an opportunity to look within and do the hard work that everyone is being asked to do these days. To begin, here are ten questions to consider:

  1. How does it make you feel knowing that your parent may be racist?

  2. How do you feel when you hear them make racist remarks or jokes?

  3. What does it mean about you if your parent is racist?

  4. What can you learn from this experience?

  5. What unconscious biases do you have? Do you own them?

  6. Do you acknowledge your privilege and power?

  7. How did your childhood shape your belief systems as an adult?

  8. Was racism truly not a part of your upbringing or did you just not see it?

  9. How will you talk about racism with other family members?

  10. What will you do to learn about racism and the actions you can take?

As has been made abundantly apparent, as a society, there’s much work to be done in the fight against racism. While it will be troubling to face squarely the issue within people closest to you, and it may be too much to expect your parent living with dementia to change, it’s not too late for you to answer the call for action. Use your experience with racism as a caregiving son or daughter to stand up and tackle racism. First and foremost, change begins with you.

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