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What to say when someone makes an unkind joke about dementia

Not all jokes about dementia are funny, or welcome. We want to make sure hurtful comments about dementia become a thing of the past. Here we suggest 5 ways to help fight the stigma associated with dementia.

World Alzheimer’s Month takes place every September. It is a global opportunity to raise awareness, provide support and demystify dementia. 

This year's theme is stigma, which is a degrading attitude of one person towards another. This might be because of their gender, race, religion, physical appearance or abilities.

Stigma is a form of discrimination. Many people affected by dementia tell us that they have experienced stigma at some point after a diagnosis. 

Here are a few different things that may occur: 

  • ‘I don’t want to catch dementia.’ 
    Family members may distance themselves since hearing the news of a diagnosis 
     
  • ‘I don’t know what to say, so I’ll stay away.’ 
    Friends may no longer make contact or want to meet up following a dementia diagnosis 
     
  • ‘You don’t look like you’ve got dementia.’ 
    Comments made by members of the public, in the street, in shops, on public transport

Fighting dementia stigma online 

We are regularly contacted by people affected by dementia who tell us about their own experiences of stigma, similar to the examples above. 

One type of stigma that has become more common are unkind ‘jokes’ and comments made on social media.  

These normally refer to someone now having dementia (whether it be themselves or someone else) because they forgot to do or say something.

Here’s a recent tweet we received from someone making a ‘joke’:

Example of a joke tweet

This is just one of the many hurtful, thoughtless comments and jokes we see online and is a type of stigma that has largely gone unchallenged. Inappropriate, often offensive comments like this only increase the stigma connected to dementia and a diagnosis. 

Humour as a coping mechanism 

While we want to challenge unkind or hurtful jokes, we understand that family members, friends and carers of someone living with dementia can also use jokes and humour as a way of coping with how they feel.  

Supporters get in contact to tell us about the lighthearted, sometimes funny moments of living with a diagnosis. We encourage them to continue to talk about times like these.

Every experience of dementia is different – we understand and respect that. 

The types of jokes we want to challenge are the tasteless, misinformed comments made about dementia, or people living with the condition. These only heighten the stigma associated with dementia and can have a negative impact on those affected who may read them. 

5 ways to help break the dementia stigma 

If you experience ignorant comments or unkind jokes, you may feel like you want to correct or educate the person making them.  

Here are our tips on how to help us break the stigma associated with hurtful dementia ‘jokes’: 

1. See the person, not the dementia

Remind the person telling the joke that dementia is not the defining aspect of a person, their personality, or their life. 

2. It's not funny for everybody

Ask them how a person with dementia would feel about their comment if they saw or heard it. What one person may find funny can quickly cause offence for someone else.

3. Unkind jokes contribute to the stigma

Explain that ignorant comments and jokes only increase the stigma around dementia. By telling the joke, they are making it harder to break the stigma for people affected by dementia now and in the future.

4. Don't spread wrong information

Many hurtful jokes rely on stereotypes, misinformation and myths. Let the person know that they can find accurate, reliable information about dementia from the Alzheimer’s Society website, and real, personal stories from our blog.

5. Be open to learn more

Encourage them to find out more and become one of our Dementia Friends. Our Dementia Friends initiative is the largest in the UK, helping change the way the public thinks, feels and talks about dementia. Attending a Dementia Friends Information Session is a good way of learning more and changing behaviours.

Become a Dementia Friend today

We urgently need to create a climate of kindness and understanding, so that everyone affected by dementia feels part of, not apart from, society.

Sign up
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39 comments

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Until this awful disease actually affects you it's very difficult to not always see the funny side of comments particularly when so-called comedians joke about it. We have to live with it for years with the ones we love being taken from us slowly day by day. We must surely be close to treatment!!

It is such a difficult subject- humour has its place
It can start a conversation
Join dementia research is another way of supporting people with dementia
https://www.joindementiaresearch.nihr.ac.uk/
We can all do our bit 😘

Dementia is a very cruel disease I know how awful it is as I was sole carer for 8 years for my wife who had alzheimersFrom 2years she didn't recognise me and from 6 years she was doubly incontinent

Humour helps me to cope (to an extent) with my mother’s Alzheimer’s, but also try to remind myself that whatever happens, she is my mother, and I am only returning her guidance, support, love, affection, patience and compassion she gave me while I was in my formative years. Although it is extremely difficult, this helps me to cope.

Lots of people do not understand dementia or the problems it causes to the individual and their families lots of assumptions are made and people treat you differently. Most people just need a little more educating and to realise it affects anyone of any age and that the patient still has feelings a voice and can hear like anyone else! Keep up the good work .

My husband has dementure, I can't say I have heard anything bad, but other people's actions tell me more. People we knowledge avoid conversation with my husband or even visitng. This is also very isolating for the carer

This touched me, as the carer isolation you mention is affecting me day to day. However, before I became my dear husband's carer, I am equally guilty of not playing a regular and faithful part in the lives of some of our friends and even a family member when dementia crashed into their lives. "As you live you learn" I guess! It is a mean disease for carers to experience.

I am very open when I meet people, I say ‘my lovely wife has Alzheimer’s on top of her cancer, she is a stalwart and we do our best with life,
Our Airedale dog, the fifth in our life loves her despite her troubles.

So by leading with a positive comment especially as we have the dog with us usually opens any comments which may be made on a positive note.
Colin, Husband and Carer.

What a great opening line! If you don't mind, I'm going to "steal it" and use it when I take my lovely mother (95 yrs old with dementia) to McDonald's for a milkshake next time. And yes, my wonderful two rescue dogs love her in spite of her troubles! Thank you, Colin, you made my day!
June, only child, daughter, and caregiver for mom!

Yes humour can help, definitely...but from WITHIN the family circle.

And I don't think it is helpful to always see the person not the disease...I did not want to see it as "my mother" being quite horrible to me at times...Better to see it as "my-mother-with -dementia" being horrible.

It never occurred to me that someone would joke about dementia. I would hope that I could stand firm and educate the person by sharing about my experience of looking after my mum and the privilege that that felt to me. I think most people who make thoughtless jokes are just nervous or uninformed, no need to get angry with them, educate them if they let you, pray for their salvation.

The recent tv programme showing a group of people with dementia opening a restaurant and helping each other achieve with more confidence at each bit of achievement shows that there is to everyday tasks with methods she devised herself. Dementia can be very isolating for carers and those cared for too, very misunderstood.

A recent tv programme showed how much a project tackled together by people at all stages of dementia, with support and encouragement helping each other to run a restaurant proved highly successful and satisfying. A way of helping to keep dementia sufferers feeling useful and part of life gives satisfaction to sufferers and carers.

are those people not relatives avoid me, are they unsure how I would or would not act, to wear the badge is advertising and there are 1000s of people I pass each day of each week. I 99% of the time take with me a lanyard and two badges (different) and felt when in a conversation and forget what I am talking about , I have 2/3 shown the badge or lanyard. I would not want them to think in any way I was on drugs. thank you

When I told my husband that I missed the man he used to be, he looked me square in the eye and said .... "so do I".
Enough said🙂.

I have often been asked the question, "What do you talk about if they don't know what you're talking about. Totally distract
them and start singing one of their favourite songs , or ask them a question, give them a hug They are a joy to be with and they love to see a smile on your face. it is difficult at times but we do get a reward , Always remember they are still your Mother or your Sister, and you have a chance of joining them .

My husband a lovely person , great engineer took Frontal Lobo Dementia diagnosed finally 69 years. Yes , humour has it’s place . We still laugh at some of the things he does, putting his socks on his hands due to the decease BUT day to day sooooo very sad to see a wonderful mind deteriorate .You soon find out your true friends! Why is their stigma ? Because everyone is absolutely scared stiff it affects them......True !

Agree with everything you say. But find that I get nervous in case my husband says something inappropriate and I try and cover things up. I wonder if people also think this and it is their fear of being embarrassed about any mental illness as it is less controllable then say somebody sitting their with cancer.

As a carer or past carer or someone volunteering it is easy to become alienated yourself by being picky particularly in a blokey environment leading to your own isolation. We don’t want to make the situation worse and need to get the message over in a diplomatic way.

I would agree that humour is an aid to coping ...as a carer for my husband my daughters and I exchange what we call dadisms. These are funny things that my husband does or says when any of us are with him and they help us through the dementia fog. One thing I think we carers are responsible for is making people aware of dementia and the fact that the man over there who I'm with who looks 'normal' well hes got dementia. I have no problem telling anyone who gives him a side glance if he does anything strange or bumps into them that he has dementia. I do it in a friendly way and quite often end up having a conversation with them. It's got to be good to talk about it......and laugh as well.

Thanks for sharing Jane. Same thing I/we are experiencing. Hardest and most heartbreaking thing in the world.
Our humor is what brought us together, gotten us through tough times and most effective way to cope now.. We never share a laugh at his expense. Leaving him with all the dignity he deserves is my main goal. I love the man, I HATE the disease.

This is such an informative feature. I found it enlightening as it hadn't occurred to me that others would be unkind about such a condition as dementia.
We must do all we can to educate others about a disease that is indiscriminate in its choice of host.
It makes me wonder if the fear of ones own vulnerability prompts the reaction?

When my dad got diagnosed with Alzheimer's I was adamant that no one treated him any differently and said as much to people when we told them, I told people dad wasn't to be defined by this illness as he is still very much a person with thoughts, feelings and choices and was to be tested with dignity and respect.

In the United States, we had a television show commercial where 4 people are in a car that is pulled over by a policeman. While they are waiting for the policeman to come up to the car, they all come to an agreement that they will pretend to have Alzheimer’s. They all start laughing at the idea. I never saw the show nor would I ever watch it, but every time the commercial came on, I would cringe hoping my wife wasn’t paying attention before I quickly changed the channel. They were definitely making fun of people who had Alzheimer’s.

The thing that gets me the most is
"Well he had a perfect conversation with me, I don't see what the problem is."
"Why do you need a break ....a break from what?"
"He remembers when I talk to him...makes you wonder if he is making it up sometimes"

Unless you are doing the 24/7 it's hard to grasp what it's all about. No one really knows or understands. Sometime humour can lighten a moment .... But that's a bit different than "making a joke of "
"Making a joke of" undermines people and knocks confidence ...

I so understand and empathise with your comment. My husband makes huge efforts to talk with old friends and relatives and then almost collapses mentally after they have gone. It is so distressing when they just don't get it! I sometimes wish they could walk in my shoes for a day or so - not just the odd hour they offer.
Keep heart - I understand.

People do not understand unless they have cared for someone suffering from the disease as I have . Being sole carer for my husband for 7 years until I was physically unable to carry on and had to put him in a care home. I used humour to calm him and still find he responds to humour even now.

My husband has dementia . He has suffered for 7 .years , I cared for him at home til May this year when I was so exhausted , he went into emergency care .
He is still in care home but I have bn having him home regular lately and am trying to get a better care package at home for him . I miss him so much . Remember ! The person is still there fighting against the awful disease , live in the moment x hold your loved ones hand , comfort them . And get some respite for yourself x
Dementia is no laughing matter

I lost my mum to rare genetic (spontaneous mutation, neither of her parents or sisters had this gene and they aren't even 100% sure this gene caused the disease as they've not seen it in any other cases) early onset Alzheimers 2 years ago when she was 47 (just two years post diagnosis). Telling my friends she was dying was had enough, then moving cities, having to find a new doctor (they're always kind and understanding right?) to visit for my prescriptions and when gathering my medical history (was really fresh still, only a couple of months) was asked "are you sure your mum had Alzheimers? That's SO young" (she felt a need to point this out to me like it was something I hadn't considered or thought of myself, gee thanks) Needless to say, never went back there. But what scares me the most about my 50/50 chance of also dying this young is that no one will believe that I have Alzheimers because "you're so young" and "Alzheimers is for old people". Hopefully within the next 30 odd years this problem is solved so my sister and I, should we be affected, don't have to go through the disbelief my mother witnessed when telling people

The thing I find hardest is that I get so frustated and loose my temper, and then feel awful.
I'm trying hard to make life as simple as possible so I don't get so tired..
But it's not just physical, I've had to take over all the finances and internet banking, and then cook dinner!
I love my husband dearly, but it's hard work!!

Very sad readings bings tears to my eyes. My wife
Been four years with this ilness hate to look a head iam 92 now I dread leaving her

I have early onset Alzheimer's disease. I am 57. All my family and friends, just accept me in every way. We laugh when I get things wrong, of course I get it wrong, that's part of the disease, you can't change it. Sometimes I can't stop laughing at myself. In fact everyone can understand me, more or less because they know me. For example playing games like "charades". When I play, you have to let me go first, otherwise I'd never get a go, ha ha. I am very lucky because I we always try to keep things light, I have an amazing support, group with careers and family. Obviously I get the bad days. Remember that I am still me and at every step we deal with whatever comes our way. Alzheimer's needs to be dealt with day by day and this is how we deal with it. Don't worry about tomorrow, we just have to see what brings another day.

I try to be positive. The only way I can do this, is accepting this disease. We can't change it. Do all the things you want to do. Every one has bad days. Let's concentrate on the GOOD days.

Have a relative tell another relative that the only way to deal with Alzheimer's is to get rid of themselves. Hurts when you are caring for the one relative with Alzheimer's.

There can be humour without unkindness, as long as you laugh with the person and not at them. Invariably it brings a smile to their face too

I lost my husband a little over a year ago....after a 15 year battle of deterioration. The one comment that makes me cringe is when after a forgetful moment, a healthy person remarks, "I'm having an Alzheimer moment." My answer is always the same: " No you're not."

The most hurtful thing I have found and don’t understand is my wife’s daughter ( lives 6 miles away) comes to see/take her out for 3-4 hours every three weeks. I literally am the full time carer.

I think it will be very important for people to understand more about it,read more about it,be kind and helpfull is not that hard.
I use to work in a dementia unit amd I loved and respected every single one.
And I miss it very much.
Lots of love for the ones who live with dementia
Xx
Alexandra

Sometimes though a bit of humour is the one thing that helps us through. I think it really depends on what is being said by whom. My lovely dad had Alzheimer's and prostrate cancer, he passed away 7 years ago now. My mum cared for him and she now too has Alzheimer's and is an amazing care home. My ex husband has a brain tumour and a type of dementia from this he is also in a care home. If I didn't sometimes have a bit of humour I don't know how I would get through this. I am sure that they would all want me to find the best way to cope and keep going. Dementia is the most devastating illness and my heart goes out to everyone living with it in their lives.

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