Mark and his mum chatting in the garden with tea

What not to say to somebody with dementia

A poor choice of language can be both hurtful and frustrating. Here we look at some words and questions to avoid using.

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For somebody living with dementia, language and communication can become more difficult over time.

How and when language problems develop will depend on the individual, as well as the type of dementia and the stage it is at. While the person living with the condition may have issues with recall or finding the right word, the words that other people use are important too. 

Good communication can be key to helping somebody to live well with dementia. Here are a few of the words and questions to avoid in conversation.

7 things not to say to somebody with dementia

1. 'Remember when...?'

While it can be tempting to try and jog the memory of somebody living with dementia, this kind of question is often a reminder of memories lost. This can be a frustrating or painful experience, and there’s also no evidence that training the brain in this way will help somebody hold on to memories. That’s not to say you should avoid talking about the past, but it’s better to lead the conversation and allow the person to join in.

Try this instead:

Instead of posing a question, try leading with ‘I remember when…’ instead. That way the person can search their memory calmly without feeling embarrassed, then join in if they like.

2. 'I've just told you that'

Having to answer the same question several times can be frustrating, but repetition will happen. There is little benefit to passing on your frustration to somebody with dementia, and saying ‘I’ve just told you that’ only reminds the person of their condition.

Try this instead:

Try to be polite and as patient as possible. It's important for somebody with dementia to feel they're being listened to and understood.

3. 'Your brother died 10 years ago'

A person living with dementia may forget about a past bereavement or ask for somebody who has passed away. But reminding them of a loved one's death can be painful, even causing them to relive the grief they've already experienced. How carers should respond to this may vary for different circumstances, but it's always good to show sensitivity.

Try this instead:

It may be better to come up with another reason for somebody's absence, while at other times a gentle reminder is appropriate. In the later stages of dementia, trying to remind them that the person has died is unlikely to work and may be best avoided.

Our dementia advisers are here for you.

4. 'What did you do this morning?'

Avoid asking too many open-ended questions, as it could be stressful for a person with dementia if they can’t remember the answer. While it might seem polite to ask somebody about their day, it’s better to focus on what’s happening in the present. It’s also important that people with dementia continue to make personal choices, but defining the options might be a helpful technique.

Try this instead:

Rather than ‘what would you like to drink?’, you could ask ‘do you want tea or coffee?’ or more simply, ‘do you want a cup of tea?’.

5. 'Do you recognise me?'

It can be distressing when somebody with dementia doesn’t recognise you, but remember that the feeling is mutual. Asking the person if they know who you are can make them feel guilty if they don't remember, or offended if they do.

Try this instead:

The way you greet somebody with dementia might change depending on the stage of their condition – judge for yourself, but keep it friendly. A warm hello could suffice, or it may help to say your name.

6. 'Let’s have a cup of tea now, then after that we can go for nice walk and get lunch in that café you like in town.’

Long, complex sentences can be difficult to grasp for somebody with dementia. It's difficult to process several ideas at once as cognitive abilities slow down, so it's better to give directions or instructions one step at a time.

Try this instead:

Use short, simple sentences as much as possible. Avoid speaking in loud environments and wait until you have the person’s full attention before you start a conversation.

7. 'Do you need some help with that, love?'

Words like ‘love’, ‘honey’ and ‘dear’ can be patronising for people living with dementia. This is sometimes referred to as ‘elderspeak’ and can cause older people to feel infantilised.

Try this instead:

Always remember the person behind the dementia, using their name as often as appropriate. This helps keep their dignity intact and aids concentration too.

Contact our National Dementia Helpline if you would like support from one of our advisers.

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251 comments

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My parents live in the Republic of Ireland, and are 76 and 80. My mum, 76, has dementia, and is deteriorating. Dad looks after her alone, says he doesn't need help yet. She has become convinced that she's living with a stranger, calls Dad by his first name, and wandered down the road to a neighbours, for help with 'removing the stranger from her house'. She called me yesterday to let me know that my Dad passed away recently, she buried him, and I should let the other girls know, (there are 4 of us daughters, all living overseas). Dad is very much alive, and reports that she says this often, (that he has passed away). When she phones me, to report that Dad has died, do I just go along with it? I tried telling her that he's still alive and living with her, but she got too upset, so I changed tack, and said how awful it is, and that I'd let the others know. Had I done the right thing, and if she phones any of us, are we all to just go along with it?

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My mom hasn’t had a diagnosis yet but she’s 92 we are waiting for a GP referral. She has just beaten Covid19 but everything seems to have speeded up. We’ve also been hit with multiple UTIs because she is catheterised which have really knocked her for 6 with hallucinations and delirium. I am her main carer as I can work from her home but I am a little worried about how I am handling some of her confusion. She has started asking where her two girls are and I’ve worked out she means me and my sister. We have started telling mom the girls are staying with my sister and this calms her down but the lie is growing. She asks what they’ve had for tea and whether they are coming home in the morning and I feel so bad telling her stuff that isn’t true. I suppose what I’m asking is am I doing the right thing agreeing with her or should I find other ways to deal with this. It’s all pretty new to me and I don’t want to get anything wrong. And I never want her to realise I’ve lied. I just want her to be happy and not stress about things.

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Hi Fiona
I think you are doing the right thing, you are trying to keep your mum happy and relaxed not worrying about the girls. The lies are for her benefit and what I find is that as you get more experienced in dealing with the confusion you lie less , you learn to be more vague or how to change the conversation. No point hurting someone when their capacity to understand what you say has diminished. It is a very sad journey to be on , I don't think you ever get over feeling bad when a lie is required but you do get better at finding ways to avoid the conversations and to direct the conversation. I suppose it is a little like grief, it doesn't get easier but you do learn to l live with it. I think your goal of wanting her to be happy shows you have her best interests at heart so go with that. All the best to you .

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Thank you 🙏

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My mother had a massive stroke so would get confused. I am Asperger's so at first I would correct her. My wife had to explain to me it isn't helping - so I had to try to retrain my natural instincts. Actually it taught me a lot more about accepting and perpetuating "white lies" to ease any discomfort / distress for bringing reality crashing down. Find a decent friend to offload on and when your loved one finally passes you hopefully will look back with rationality and see you did the right thing. Before my mother passed from subsequent stroke (2.5 years later) we had some lovely conversations including having to give full profit and loss for the range of Sandwich shops she owned - if I ever find out those were real I will want my share :-)

Being thanked for being a good son was reward enough. Love your mum - which I am 100% positive you do - and ease their journey. Don't forget to have some "me" time to restore your energy levels.

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Stephen. Thank you so much for your words. I take comfort in that she regularly tells me I am a wonderful daughter and she would struggle without me. Your words are so kind and I feel I can continue to support mom I without worrying. I hope I also find comfort when the time comes to say bye. Thank you again.

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My mom has been in a nursing home for 2 years now. She has Dementia. My dad passed away 9 years ago and she keeps asking for him. I do tell her he passed because she wants to know why he doesn't visit. It's extremely sad. She forgets and asks again the very next day. I, and all my siblings, don't know how to communicate with her. She doesn't want to be there, she complains about everything at the home, (bad food, cold food, she's cold, nasty roommate etc.) We don't know what to talk about but realize she's lonely. Covid hasn't helped, we have not been allowed to see her. I feel bad for her but don't know how to help. Any suggestions?? Is there anyone I can talk to??
Linda

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Hi Linda,

If you are based in the UK, please call our Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456. Our dementia advisers are here to provide advice and support seven days a week: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/dementia-connect-support-line

Some people also find it helps to talk with others who have gone through or are going through similar experiences. If you think this would help, you can visit our online community, Talking Point, for peer support: https://forum.alzheimers.org.uk/ It's free and open day or night.

We hope this is helpful, Linda.

Alzheimer's Society blog team

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Hi Linda

My Dad is in a nursing home and in the beginning he would ask about our mother all the time, she died 39 years ago.

They do say not to tell someone with dementia that someone is dead when they don’t remember as they have to relive the loss again so that’s what I did. I went along with it and it helped.

You could say he’s coming to visit later or tomorrow. The short term memory is bad so she’ll likely forget.

Maybe trying to agree with her and also say you’ll look into the bad roommates, the bad food, get her some warm clothes etc. Anything that comforts her in the moment is good.

All this helped with my Dad.

Hope that helps. It’s a tough time for all.

Valerie

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My dad has dementia, he’s 80, my mom is 76 and trying to get along with him by herself except for texting me all the time complaining about him, she stays up late and gets up late, my dad goes to bed early and gets up early, eats cereal and coffee then takes a 2 hour nap, that makes mom mad, he wants to eat dinner early and she won’t fix dinner till later so he eats a bowl of cereal, gets mad and goes to bed, I’ve tried to tell mom what to do to help but she won’t listen, right now they are fighting because mom want him to wear a coat that he don’t want to wear. Please help me give mom better advice, thanks, Wendy

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Hello Wendy,

We are sorry to hear this - it sounds like a really difficult time for you and your parents.

If you are based in the UK, we recommend speaking with one of our dementia advisers to discuss the situation. They will be best placed to provide you with advice and support. Please call our Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456. (More information on opening times: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-support/dementia-connect-support-line)

If you're based in the US, please contact the Alzheimer's Association helpline: https://alz.org/help-support/resources/helpline

Or if you're based in Canada, please contact the Alzheimer's Society of Canada helpline: https://alzheimer.ca/en/Home/ContactUs

Wishing you all the best, Wendy.
-
Alzheimer's Society blog team

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The easiest way i think, is that the world he has created for so long, the routine and structure that was once, may no longer exist to him, he has a new world. With this a new routine he cannot follow his old routine, like late dinner and late bedtime etc. She has to jump into his new world, his new routine. In a care home it is about person centred care, their way not the staffs way, because it would be confusing to them as to why they have to get up at a certain time. Dementia is a process and as he is able to eat and make a cuppa on his own now, means that his dementia is not very progressed and it will unfortunately get worst. I suggest that your mum joins a support group, because she will need the support. Because although this is hard for your dad who has a diagnosis, someone who cares for a relative with dementia, its like grieving for the person you once knew, and it can feel like a stranger at times. Your mum has to grieve and it is not an easy ride. Get as much support as possible and it is absolutely fine say i need help, or i cant do this anymore, because this is such a hard process.

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My daughter, a Veteran, is in mid 50s and is diagnosed with early dementia. She has FTD. She is temporarily living with us, her parents, ages 82 and 90 and it's taking a toll on us. Also she is very bored and requires lots of attention, We're striving to somehow get her into a Nursing home for proper care but just don't know where to start. We do not have power of Attorney over her health or finances.

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My mum (84) is caring for my dad (93) who has dementia. She's always had a very short temper and is a very controlling person. She has always presented to strangers as having a perfect life and wouldn't dream of admitting any problems or shortcomings or need for help. Obviously this is making them very isolated as she won't access any support. She is very short and patronising with my dad, is embarassed by him and they seem increasingly agitated together. He has shown signs that they row a lot now and yet throughout his life he has supported everything she's ever done or said despite knowing that she basically lies a lot of the time.
This all sounds very critical of her but it's true and despite how difficult she is I do love her. I also know that this would be hard for anybody it's just that she's the furthest thing you could get from being a natural born carer.
If anyone has any suggestions they would be much appreciated. I am thinking that somehow we need to get my mum respite from him but she actually has that option and so far has not accessed it, saying he doesn't want to go. I think it because shes acting weird about it which he picks up on ..... and so on and on we go. It's just sad to see their final years so unhappy and not liking each other but maybe that's also how they've actually always been but now they can't keep the pretence up

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My mum asks to go home frequently, and recently mentioned one that she lived in 30 years ago. Is it a good idea to take her to see it, or will it upset her if she can’t go in?
Just trying to put things in perspective for her.

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Hi Elaine,

Thanks for your comment.

The question of 'home' is a difficult one, and it can mean different things for different people. There is some advice in this article which you may find helpful: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/blog/i-want-go-home-what-to-say-to-someon…

It may be that just talking about your mum's past is a good way of accessing memories and understanding what she might need. If you're worried about this or the question of whether taking your mum to an old address might be helpful, I'd strongly recommend calling our Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456. You'll be able to speak to a trained dementia adviser who can learn more about your situation and give information, advice and support.

There are more details of the Dementia Connect support line, including opening hours, here:
https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/dementia-connect-support-line

I really hope this helps, Elaine.

Alzheimer's Society blog team

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I don't think it would hurt, she may remember. Even if not, y'all can share thoughts about the house, street or surroundings. Might just be a new moment you both can share in the present. I guess we learn to "accept" rather than "expect". Blessings to all.

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Is the property on Streetview? You could show a picture that way. I guess what might you do if you take her there and she insists on going in? Could be tricky.

Maybe distraction is an alternative technique? Do they like looking at houses? Do they recall any celebrity? "Hey do you want to look inside ((name)) house ? We can look on this application...

I am starting this journey with my Uncle. Just read this what not to say article. Oops. I need to reprogram myself.

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We are In a situation where the much loved and adored 97 yo mother has dementia. However to her the world and the family has to revolve around her and what makes her happy . She refuses to leave her house to stay with family for the week end or in a beautiful house like care facility. She throws tantrums like a 2 year old which last for hours and accuses her kids of persecuting her . When her son gives into her she smirks stops crying and causing distress and becomes gentle and joyful again those who love her are left in tatters how should we deal with this brahma iiur as it means there is no respite

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Mum has severe dementia and it's blooming hard work! She doesn't stop talking, asking endless questions, demanding assistance for everything throughout the day and wanting someone to be with her all the time!
She has no patience, you go into the kitchen to prepare something to eat or drink that may take a minute or 2 and she starts calling demanding things immediately, I find myself hurrying to do things just to comply. To add to that she has mobility problems so she really does need assistance but when she asks to be fed which she can manage herself although with difficulty she then gets annoyed no matter how you try and encourage, coax or praise her.
I am so fortunate she has a live in carer but even then it's hard work for her especially but also for me. I do not live with her but she phones to report I come over all the time, I see her 3-4 times a week, often staying between 3 to 6 hours. Thinking of getting the doctor to prescribe a sedative as she will get into bed early enough but make noise, bang on the walls (no doubt disturbing the neighbours) till midnight. The sedative idea is also to calm her nerves she is in worry and anxiety overdrive!

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Such a difficult situation. You will need a lot of patience to cope. Are you getting enough help and breaks from your mum?
Thinking of you at this difficult time

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My Mum was diagnosed with mild to moderate mixed dementia about a year ago 2months ago she had a stroke(a bleed) this has affected her sight with a slight left sided deficit she’s home with me but her dementia appears to be getting much worse how does having a stroke affect someone with dementia please

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Someone needs to tell everyone how tough it is to be the person who has the been told they have early onset dementia!!
I am that person....having the news at 68 years old. Your entire life that you have known for years is slowly going away...that short term and long term memory just disappears...makes one almost feel they should be invisible..until you are there you won't be able to understand that our life that we knew is no more. we just wonder when will this life continue in Heaven where our sun will shine!!

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Hello Catherine, and thanks for getting in touch.

We're really sorry to hear about your recent dementia diagnosis. This must be such a tough time for you.

Please know you can also call our Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456 for advice, information or emotional support. Our dementia advisers are here to listen and provide support when you need them: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/dementia-connect-support-line

Some people also find it helps to talk with other people who have gone through or are going through similar experiences. If you think this would help, you can visit our online community, Talking Point, for peer support: https://forum.alzheimers.org.uk/

In the meantime, we have a free guide that you might be interested in: 'The dementia guide: Living well after diagnosis'. The guide will help you to understand more about dementia and the treatments, support and services that are available. It includes information about how you can live as well as possible with dementia, and about making plans for the future. It's available to download as well as receive via post: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/publications-about-dementia/the-dementia-…

We hope this is helpful, Catherine. Please do call our support line if you need someone to speak with.

All the best,

Alzheimer's Society blog team

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Hi Catherine, I had to tell my mum her diagnosis when she was 68 aswell it was the hardest thing iv ever had to do,dementia is a cruel illness ,my mum was devastated by her diagnosis and in complete denial, however I can always see the real mum shining through even now in the last stages her sarcastic sence of humour pops up every now and then ,she never lost her spirit , I hope you are well ,I wish you well ❤

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I like to believe that our struggles in this life will stay in this life. Wherever we go next will be a place where all our questions are answered without the need to ask. I sincerely hope you will have more good days then bad x x x

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God bless. I am the person trying to decide if I should approach my sibling who also has a daughter that is mentally challenged that is at home & my sister is taking care of her 24 -7. Both have only me to check in on them but I’m afraid to approach her for fear she will shut me out completely. Any answers to that one??

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Hello Nan,

We'd recommend calling our Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456 for advice on how to approach the conversation with your sister. Our dementia advisers are here for you when you need them: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/dementia-connect-support-line

You may also benefit from talking with other people who have gone through or are going through similar experiences within our online community, Talking Point: https://forum.alzheimers.org.uk/

We hope this is helpful.

Alzheimer's Society blog team

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My brother has recently diagnosed dementia. His wife passed away in July. This has thrown him for a total loop, Doesn’t remember that she died and every day around 4:00 he begins to get anxious and tries to call her or wants to know where she s. It is devasting for him and for his family to tell him everyday that she is gone. Is their anyway we can avoid telling him again & again. Any suggestions will be appreciated

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It is not helpful for him to remind him of her death only distressing. Is there somewhere she may have gone ie shopping or hairdressers that would reassure him that she is not lost. It feels uncomfortable as if you are lying but it is kinder than the truth which is painful and not retained.
Thinking of you in this sad situation

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Those with dementia do not need to be grounded in reality, and my favorite term I've heard for that suggestion of telling them their deceased loved one is elsewhere (or better yet, redirecting) is "therapeutic lying." It just agitates them to learn this news over and over again

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This is great but if only it was printer friendly. Its just a narrow strip down the middle of the page and not great to print and share with my mum. It would be great if you could put a link to a pdf of this.

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Thanks for your feedback Sarah. Our site is designed to be mobile friendly as the majority of our readers view it on mobile phones, that's why it is in the single column layout. However we are hoping to add a printer friendly function soon.

Our dementia information pages are available as PDFs to print, you can download them by clicking 'Save this information' if you wish: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/symptoms-and-diagnosis/sym…

Thank you

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Hello ,
First of all thank you for taking out time to read this ,
My grandad who is 78 of age
Is in the stages of dementia
He remembers who I am and who the members of the family are , but if you ask him what he ate In the morning he would have no idea ,
He has always been a gentleman,businessman a very strong character man ,
Now to see him like this is very heartbreaking because when I was young I used to see him as a very successful man,
He has travelled the world been everywhere,
But now he doesn't go anywhere just likes to be in his room and has no interest In the outside world.
He does not like taking a shower and has avoided it for some time ,
What is the best way round this
I am his grandson I am 26 years of age

I just feel like I’m not doing enough to help him ,

Any thoughts or opinions on how I could help him.
As he was there for me when I was a baby a teen.

Thank you once again
God bless.

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Hello FP,

Thanks for your comment. We're very sorry to hear about your grandad - this must be a really worrying time for you and your family.

Please know that you can always call our Dementia Connect support line on 0333 150 3456 for more information, advice and support specific to your grandad's situation. More details about the support line (including opening hours) is available here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/dementia-connect-support-line

We also have an online community, Talking Point, where carers and other people affected by dementia can share their experiences and receive peer support. This could be a great place for you to receive helpful suggestions from other people who have been in similar situations: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-support/dementia-talking-point-our-on…

In the meantime, we have information on our website about daily living (including washing, bathing, dressing, etc) with lots of practical advice, which you may find useful: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-support/daily-living

We hope this is helpful,
Alzheimer's Society blog team

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I’m so sorry about your Grandad. It’s hard to watch, but there is so much you can do to make his world ok and along the way your time with him can be more rewarding too. My Mom passed a year ago and lived with Alzheimer’s for many years that included the passing of my Dad and a transition to a new living situation. My Mom had always showered every morning her entire life and then One day didn’t want to. It helped when I understand that she became afraid of the Looking up and the water coming at her Face. She just didn’t understand it. At first, it helped to just be near her and to talk her through What was happening in a calm and confident voice. She trusted me and I worked hard to never lose her trust in me. It doesn’t mean I didn’t mess up a lot, but when I did push her too hard, I noticed how she was responding and getting agitated. I stopped gave her a little space and then came back and tried a different way or let it go for a bit. She Also loved washing her hands with warm soap and water or the feel of a warm face cloth across her skin. Sometimes that was all we could get for that day. Be sure to start away from his face so it doesn’t startle him. Pay attention to what you think he is ready for and when it starts to go awry. That will give you clues to what he is capable of that day.
I tried to always set the tone for how our time together would be. If I was upbeat and happy so was she. I wasn’t always able to muster up that energy, but whenever I could it paid off. When I greeted my Mom, I tried to use a tone that told her I was one of her very special people and she was safe with me, she always received me that way. I stopped worrying about her knowing my name or my connection to her, I just focused on helping her understand that I was her safe space, someone that would share in laugh or a hug. If I left the room for more than a few moments that she may have forgotten that I had been there I would return with the same greeting of “ HI MOM! IT’S JENN! With excitement and love in my voice. Her eyes would light up again as if she was having another visitor and something wonderful was about to happen. Sometimes during our visit she would ask me who I am and I would explain to her that I was her daughter and how special that was. I would use that moment to explain to her that she raised me and what she taught me and the look of pride on her face was such a gift to me. She couldn’t believe that she had done such an extraordinary thing. I set the tone for her being happy and that the day or moment was full of possibilities, she followed along every time! It was wonderful fun for me to try to Get that reaction from her. I found simple things to do together like color or fold paper flowers. I would do it along side her, I noticed she watch what I did for queues as to what her next step was. I went at her pace, always keeping her dignity and pride at the forefront of my mind. Later in her disease that became less of an issue and she was happy to have me help or explain something. Early on she needed to believe I didn’t know she was struggling and setting her up to succeed became a goal of mine and made my time with her more enjoyable. It removed all the anxiety of her being with people because she wasn’t trying to hide her deficiencies she was just being with me.. I enjoyed finding things to do with her that made her laugh and distracted her.
I am so sorry that this is the hand that you were dealt, but I love that you are trying to understand your Grandad. You will be a blessing to him as he navigates this disease. God bless you, I apologize for rambling, but I hope this is in someway helpful.

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Many thanks for this page of communications as I am a health care assitant in a suggical ward, although we do not have many dementia patients but when we do I can gain many knowlegde and ways to care for them...

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Having had a father with dementia, I'd re-iterate ALL of the suggestions re communicting with them. They are vital suggestions. I note that in Care establishments and hospitals,unfortunately, many/most of the carers/nurses etc do use the wor "love" or even "darling" or "sweetie". This is seriously patronising and infantlising. It is SO important not to do this and also, I would add, importantly, NOT to talk over their heads, as tends to happen too (ie if two carers are walking with someone to help them). All the suggestions in this article are all extremely important for the well-being of the person with dementia and should be the focus of all trainings for carers/nurses, doctors, relatives..

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