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Should I tell my mother she has dementia?

Answered by David Troxel

June 3, 2015

My elderly mom has Alzheimer’s disease. The initial diagnosis - over two years ago - was met with anger and denial. She has deteriorated a good deal and is in a seniors’ residence/ home. On the phone and during visits she often says and asks “I feel sick - what's wrong with me?”

I often reply, “Getting old is for the birds,” or “You are fine; just suffering from old age.” However lately she seems unhappy and distressed and my answers don't bring calm. I don't want to get into an argument by announcing that she has memory loss or dementia. Yet there is a part of me that feels that if I told her she might get the satisfaction of understanding why things are so terribly hard for her on an ongoing basis. Is there any point in doing so?

This question is one I’m asked frequently and I want to compliment you for your initial approach. Often some reassuring, general words provides comfort and reassurance. Examples could include, “Mom we all are getting forgetful,” or “It’s not easy getting older.”

Keep up what you are doing and in the way you are doing it!

But I also agree that sometimes truth and authenticity is called for. Consider telling your mother more about her diagnosis (some families will be very direct and even use the word “Alzheimer’s). Put a positive and loving spin on it. For example you can say that the doctor has diagnosed her with memory loss but then say something like, “But Mom, we are in this together. Let’s vow to make every day fun.”

Doing this will sometimes focus the person on that positive emotion and soften the blow of her diagnosis.

If your mother does want to talk about her situation, encourage her. Be a good listener, demonstrate empathy and understanding and answer her questions. All of this can be life-affirming and healing and allow you to set up services for her as needed.

Thoughts and stories from others

  1. July 8, 2015 at 05:36 pm
    Posted by June Gregory

    A decision must take into consideration the individual who is suffering from AD. If they always had direct honesty with their physicians, they usually understand the diagnosis, will accept and analyze it early on. My husband, asked directly how the disease would affect him. I found the easiest method of explanation was to take peppercorns, place them on the table extracting 5 at a time explaining the loss of vital cells gradually, and proceeding until no more available, reassuring him it would take a very long time. This satisfied the diagnosis and eased his mind

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