A woman talks to her senior father about dementia.

How to Talk to Your Parents About Dementia

Bethesda Health | June 25, 2019

When you were a child, your mother and father explained difficult things to you and provided for your care. Now, you find that you must talk to your parents about dementia and assure them that you will provide for their care.

How do you do this, particularly with a disease that increasingly robs a person of their ability to understand what is being said to them?

Confirm That it is Dementia

Dementia is a group of symptoms that result in a decline in mental abilities, such as reasoning and remembering, that significantly interferes with daily living. Alzheimer’s is the most well-known form of dementia.

As an example, you and perhaps some of your family members suspect that your father has dementia. Before you do anything, however, it is best that you must confirm that is the case.

The Alzheimer’s Association identifies 10 early warning signs and symptoms:

As dementia progresses, you may notice:

Even though dementia is not curable, an early diagnosis can lead to better medical treatment that will help with symptoms and allow him time to have a voice in the care he will receive.

However, do not try to make the diagnosis yourself. Be aware that other illnesses and conditions can cause dementia-like symptoms.

To confirm a dementia diagnosis, talk with other family members, and consult with physicians or professionals who work in senior care and specialize in dementia care. There are tests that can confirm the presence of dementia.

Having the Discussion

Get Ready to Talk to Your Parents About Dementia

Prepare yourself for a challenging conversation. Think about how you want to begin the discussion and handle disagreements. Also, have some positive suggestions and ideas to offer.

Most importantly, understand that the conversation may be continuing for an extended period. If it becomes too heated or emotional, it is best to leave it alone and address the issue another time.

Understand Your Parent’s Perspective

People with dementia may not realize they have it, or if they sense something is wrong, they may deny it out of fear of losing their independence or becoming a burden to their children.

While talking with your parents, acknowledge their fear and confusion. Explain that this is why you want to get help for them.

Also, keep in mind that your parents may still see you as the eight-year-old child who came to them crying when you fell off your bike. Role changes can be awkward for both parents and adult children.

Stay Positive During Your Conversation

For a successful conversation that doesn’t overwhelm anyone, make sure to focus on the positive. Do not make the debilitating effects of dementia the main focus of the discussion. Make sure your loved one is aware that there are people who can and want to help him maintain a good quality life. Talk about the importance of accessing those resources.

Find the Best Person to Talk About It

If your loved one doesn’t want to talk to you, find another relative, friend, or health care professional whose opinion he may more readily accept. Whatever you do, reaffirm that you have his best interests at heart and will be there for him.

Don’t Give in to Anger

It can be frustrating when your loved one becomes angry at every suggestion you make. The temptation is to return his anger, which will simply end any hope of resolution and may cloud the possibility of returning to the discussion later. If you feel your anger rising, call a “time out” or change the subject. Do whatever you have to do to stay calm.

Don’t Give In

You can postpone the talk, but delaying it for too long will only complicate the issue. Find another time, and perhaps a new tactic to begin the conversation again.

Understand How Dementia Effects Communication

To communicate effectively, it helps to understand how dementia affects the mind and emotions of a person. Here are some examples:

The Driving Discussion

Your Dad has been driving for 65 years, but now you notice unexplained dents in the car, and damage to the garage doorway. There have been a couple of traffic tickets and maybe a fender bender. In riding along with him, you realize he is slow to react and sometimes confused about which way to turn in areas familiar to him.

Even gently pointing out his diminished driving skills may cause him to become upset. To him, driving represents independence from others and control over his life. Now you are questioning his ability to drive, and thereby confining him to his home.

Prior to the driving discussion, put together a transportation plan. Who among your siblings and friends would be willing to take him to doctors’ appointments, stores, or to his favorite restaurant? A long-term care community with transportation services may be an option. Before you take the keys, offer him some alternatives.

If he refuses all other options and persists in driving, his safety and the safety of others on the road takes precedence. Remove the car keys from the house or disable the vehicle.

Don’t Avoid the Discussion

A survey of approximately 1,000 adults revealed that 30 percent of them refused to talk to a relative who showed signs of dementia. Most worried about offending the person and ruining their relationship with them. Many said they would wait until the symptoms worsened!

However, delaying or avoiding the discussion merely makes it far more difficult in the future. Yes, it is a hard thing to do and can risk your relationship with your parent or loved one, but it is an act of love. 

If you need assistance caring for a senior with dementia, Bethesda is here to help. Our Memory Care neighborhoods in the St. Louis area provide support to caregivers and families of seniors. Contact us or schedule a tour to learn more.  

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