Responding to Tricky Questions with Compassion: Dementia Patient Care
If you’re a caretaker of a loved one with dementia, you know that their confusion typically results in many different questions. The more disoriented they may become, the more questions they may ask. They may ask about a job they haven’t worked in years. They might ask about a home that they were forced to move out of due to their condition. They may even ask about a spouse or other loved one who has been deceased for decades.
Reasoning with Dementia Patients Rarely Works
As logical people, we’re conditioned to want to answer questions truthfully. When it comes to caring for loved ones with dementia, you’ll quickly realize that they’re rarely thinking logically when it pertains to the specifics of their immediate surroundings. They may ask where their cat is—though they themselves had to take the cat to be put to sleep 20 years ago. If you were to answer them logically and thus truthfully, you would likely upset them very much. The next day, they may ask about the cat once again—and thus force you to repeat the painful and confusing truth all over again.
Compassionate Responses Rather Than Truthful Answers
So, how do you respond to tricky questions when the truth would only upset your loved ones with dementia? By responding with a compassionate response rather than a truthful one. It is also helpful to pivot the subject to a new activity to take their mind off such questions.
The following are a few examples:
Your mother asks about her cat Mittens who has been gone a long time.
- Truthful answer: “Mittens had to be put down over 20 years ago, Mom.”
- Compassionate response: “Mitten is sleeping. Let’s go for a walk.”
Your father wants to go home, though he’s had to move in with you due to his condition.
- Truthful answer: Dad, you live with me now. We sold your house to the McKinneys.
- Compassionate response: That’s very far away. I made up a room for you at my house and I’m making dinner for us tonight.
Your husband wakes up in a panic because he thinks he’s late for work, even though he’s been retired for 15 years.
- Truthful answer: You haven’t worked at that job for 15 years. You’re retired.
- Compassionate response: You’re off work today. Would you like to help me with this puzzle?
For most tricky questions for which a truthful answer would only result in upsetting your loved one with dementia, there are likely an array of compassionate responses you can employ. It’s likely worthwhile for you to have a few such responses at the ready so that you can avoid confusing or upsetting experiences. It’s also helpful to keep your compassionate responses consistent in case they recall what you've said in the past.
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