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How to Handle Difficult Questions From a Loved One With Memory Loss


Communicating with a loved one who has memory loss can be challenging in a number of ways. Those with memory loss often ask questions that are difficult to answer. Certain sights, sounds, and smells can trigger memories, and they may ask about people or events that have long passed. According to a report by the Mental Health Foundation, those with dementia may ask these questions because they are experiencing time-shifts, delusions, and even hallucinations. When your loved one asks difficult-to-answer questions, consider using some of the following tips for being clear and comforting in your response.

Pay Attention to Non-Verbal Cues (Yours and Theirs)

Your loved-one’s nonverbal cues can give you insight into how to respond most appropriately. If your loved one is clearly agitated or upset when they ask a question, a gentle, comforting touch and a pause before you respond can often bring them back to a comforted state. If the questioner is smiling and seems wistful, a knowing smile back can make them feel validated even if they aren’t making much sense. Your loved one will remember your own non-verbal cues better than your words.

When Honesty is NOT the Best Policy

Most experts agree that when someone with memory loss asks a question where the answer could cause distress, honest answers may not be the way to go. If your loved one asks when their spouse will arrive, and you respond that their spouse is dead, they can experience the pain of loss as if it had just happened. Often these kinds of questions come up repeatedly and so the pain of hearing the truth is frequent. If telling a lie is uncomfortable to you, try skirting the issue instead. “Dad isn’t coming today, mom,” may be all that needs to be said.

Experiment with Different Kinds of Responses

Since everyone’s personality is different, and everyone’s memory loss experience is different, you may need to try different tactics to see which one works best for your loved one. Changing the subject outright might be annoying or insulting to one person and a perfect solution for another.

The most important thing to do when confronted with difficult and awkward questions from your loved one with dementia is to remain calm and show empathy. For more tips on tackling difficult situations with your loved one, visit the Ebenezer blog.

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Ebenezer is Minnesota’s largest senior living operator with over 100 years of experience serving older adults. As part of Fairview Health Services, Ebenezer is dedicated to healing, discovering and educating for longer, healthier and meaningful lives. ​

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