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What should I tell my husband with dementia when he tries to talk to his long-dead parents?

"Minding Our Elders" columnist Carol Bradley Bursack hears from a reader wondering how to respond when their spouse with dementia sees or talks with his long-deceased parents.

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Carol Bradley Bursack, "Minding Our Elders" columnist.
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Dear Carol: Though my husband was diagnosed with dementia four years ago, he’s had symptoms for much longer. I’ve learned a lot from reading your column and joining a support group, but I’m still struggling with some of his behavior.

What’s going on is that he sees and/or talks with his long-deceased parents. I’ve told him that they are waiting for him in heaven, but that upsets him because then he thinks they just died. When I tell him that this happened long ago, he argues and gets agitated. Sometimes I even wonder if this behavior means that my husband’s not long for this world. I’m torn between just leaving him alone when he does this and trying to correct his perception. What is the best approach? — EK.

Dear EK: This is common behavior for someone with advanced dementia, but it’s one of the many situations where caregivers can feel helpless. We don’t want to see a person whom we love distressed, and we view the idea that they are seeing their deceased parents as distressing. Sometimes, though, they find it comforting, so read on.

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For most people with dementia, short-term memory loss happens significantly earlier than long-term memory loss. This means that your husband is cognitively living at a time when he was younger, and his parents were alive. At least for the moment, this is his reality, so even your well-intentioned efforts upset him since “heaven” means that his parents died. As you’ve seen, he then experiences their deaths as if this is new information.

Ask yourself if your husband seems content or upset during these conversations. If he’s content, then maybe it’s all right to just let him enjoy this time. Or you could simply say, “Were you talking with your mom? I’ll bet she’s happy. Let’s let her do what she’s doing, and we’ll go for a walk.”

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If he’s worried about his parents or wondering where they are, try to validate his concern with some thoughtful expressions of understanding. You could say, “I can see that you’re worried about your mom. She’s busy right now, but you’ll see her later.” Then suggest a snack or something he’d enjoy.

The idea is to provide support without having him repeatedly relive their deaths. Some caregivers feel that they are lying when they do this, but in my view, you are simply recognizing his truth.

If you find that he frequently becomes distressed during these episodes, the doctor could prescribe a medication to help relieve his anxiety.

To address your thoughts about your husband being near death himself, that’s a valid thought. If he were otherwise exhibiting end-of-life physical signs, he might be comforted by the idea of joining them, so that’s possible. However, from what you described, this sounds more like a memory issue.

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My heart is with you, EK. It’s hard enough when someone in this stage of dementia is a parent. It’s got to be even harder when it’s your spouse. Take care.

Related Topics: WELLNESSFARGOFAMILY
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.
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