Informing a family member of the death of a loved one is difficult no matter the circumstances. When faced with the emotional and repetitive task of reminding those with memory loss about a death that occurred years ago, our tendency is to make the situation go away altogether in a well-meaning attempt to steer clear of any emotionally taxing conversations. Rita Altman, Vice President, Memory Care and Programming for Sunrise, has provided one of our blog readers with tips on handling this predicament:
Q: “My mom's younger sister passed away two years ago and my mom will sometimes forget that her sister is no longer alive. Mom will ask me if I've spoken with her. I then have to gently tell her all over again that her sister died. While my mom isn't horrified or grief-stricken to hear the "news," she'll still look shocked and say, "Oh, no! What happened?"
I've always felt that I owed my mom the truth, especially since she is, in fact, lucid some of the time, but now I'm wondering if I should just fib or change the subject. Mom's nearly 89 and has had dementia for over ten years.”
A: You mentioned that your mom appears shocked and seems surprised (i.e. “Oh no, what happened?”), which indicates that her short term memory is impaired and that she has not remembered your previous conversations on the subject.
The fact that she is genuinely surprised by your news means she needs to mentally and emotionally process it each time you give her the news. When we fib or change the subject of conversation, we hold our loved ones with memory loss back from fully expressing their emotional feelings. This can lead to emotional pain; so, make every effort not to lie or avoid the topic, which eventually only leads to the loved one losing trust in us over time. Instead, make sure to validate your loved one’s feelings so that he or she can express them fully.
The reality of death and the well-meaning therapeutic fib - both tricky responses - can be avoided through Validation. At Sunrise communities, our care managers are trained in basic Validation techniques that allow them to comfort residents. These techniques might be applied to your situation in the following ways:
- Your mother probably misses her sister and wants to see her and talk with her again. So, the next time she asks about your aunt, try responding with an empathetic tone of voice and ask an open-ended question, such as: “You really miss your sister, don’t you?”
- You might follow up by asking, “What do you miss the most about your sister?” or you could reminisce with her by encouraging her to share a positive memory that she has by saying, “Tell me one of your favorite memories about your sister.” This will give her the opportunity to talk about her and share her stories and emotions openly. Be prepared to comfort her if she sheds some tears of sadness (with a hug, kiss, by gently rubbing her back, etc.), especially if she is missing her sister.
Again, while it is tempting to avoid discussing death altogether, this process is necessary for anyone’s emotional wellbeing, including those with memory loss. Hopefully, in doing so, she will also share some happy memories from the past, as well. These moments are an opportunity to bond even further with your mom, despite her memory loss.
Do you have a question about a senior with memory loss for Rita? Post your question in the comments section of this article and Rita will answer you!