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What Not to Say to a Parent with Dementia

By Rosanne Burke

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 used to be able to.

Changes to how a person communicates can be very frustrating and add to the challenges of caregiving. To manage day to day and keep your stress levels down, it will be necessary for you to adjust how you communicate as well.

Here are seven phrases to eliminate from your vocabulary, and suggestions for what you can say or do instead if your mom or dad has dementia:

  1. “Mom it’s me.” One of the most difficult moments is when you realize that your mom doesn’t recognize you or know who you are. You can make a simple change by introducing yourself and explaining your relationship. Help her out and reduce her potential distress of not knowing you by saying “Hi mom, it’s Mary, your daughter.”

  2. “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. Other people will also want to quiz your mom and if this happens, help her save face by saying “Of course she knows who I am. I’m your daughter Mary.”

  3. “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!

  4. “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. You may also want to document and preserve all her stories for posterity.

  5. “Dad, calm down, everything is okay.” If your dad is upset, telling him to calm down will likely 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.

  6. “Mom, I didn’t steal your purse!” Sometimes dementia can cause a person to accuse you of wrongdoing. It’s important to recognize this is the disease 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.”

  7. “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, you may want to avoid sharing information too far in advance. Let her know you are taking her to the doctor’s appointment just before it is time to leave.

Changing what you say can take some practice but if you are willing to try new responses to common scenarios, it will set you up for much more positive interactions with your loved one!


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