Have you struggled with knowing if correcting someone living with dementia is helpful or hurtful? Dementia care expert Teepa Snow shares insights on how to navigate this challenge with loved ones while preserving the relationship.
For many people, correcting loved ones comes from a place of care and the innate desire to help others grow intellectually. However, conversing with a person living with dementia requires additional care to navigate in a skillful way.
Teepa Snow, dementia care expert and fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association, offers tips that can be used in conjunction with her resounding advice: do not correct.
Should you tell dementia patients the truth?
People living with dementia may respond to being corrected in different ways depending on the progression of the disease. Emotional cues act to enhance our memory recall; a person with Alzheimer’s suffers from damage to the amygdala and therefore will not experience the boost in memory cues.
Depression, irritation and anxiety can also present in people living with dementia when the amygdala is affected, which can make having difficult conversations more challenging.
Snow emphasizes, “When someone is living with brain change, trying to argue with them, correct their errors, or orient them to reality is almost never helpful.”
The act of being corrected can cause embarrassment, confusion and fear for a person living with dementia. Here are two rules of thumb Snow says can be used to implement.
Refrain from telling the person they’re wrong
Contradicting or correcting someone if they say something wrong can not only be an embarrassing experience for a person living with Alzheimer’s or another kind of dementia — it can be an embarrassing or, at least, uncomfortable experience for the person doing the correcting. It can be an altogether awkward and tense situation — and one that can easily be avoided by letting the person with dementia save face.
Don’t argue (and try to avoid tense topics altogether)
It is important to allow the person living with dementia to feel respected. Respond to their feelings and experiences when communicating rather than their words.
Snow says, “Since preserving your relationship should be the primary focus, you will have to give up on being ‘right.’ Does it really matter if the individual you support is seeing something a different way?”
If a tense topic is brought up continuously by a person living with dementia, find ways that you don’t need to confront it by redirecting the conversation, offering sympathy or validation, or providing a one-sentence explanation.
Is it OK to tell a person with Alzheimer’s a white lie?
White lies are necessary with Alzheimer’s patients sometimes, when an explanation is too granular or the truth could evoke alarm in the person you are communicating with.
An alternative, Snow suggested: Just go with it. “You don’t have to necessarily lie to them, but be willing to go along with them, and live in their reality,” Snow said. “For example, if your mom tells you that she was an Olympic gymnast and you know that is not accurate, instead of saying, ‘Mom, that’s not true!’ you may say something like, ‘Wow, tell me more about that!’ In this way the interaction becomes playful and engaging for both parties instead of strained.
What is the best way to talk to someone with dementia?
Communicating with loved ones living with dementia can be challenging, especially when trying to understand if telling the truth would be helpful. Clinical psychologist Linda Ercoli provided insights on how to navigate conversations surrounding driving and dementia as a caregiver when driving becomes a dangerous behavior.
Ercoli said it is equally important to allow the person living with dementia to express their sense of their driving abilities and feelings of losing the privilege of driving. She highlights that listening to the person with dementia is important and can help prevent a tumultuous conversation.
The tips above provide a framework for approaching challenging conversations without correcting someone with dementia. Each scenario is different as people living with dementia experience emotions and triggers that are unique themselves. Testing the above tips and noting the success of each in your environment is needed to assemble your own best practices.
Communication techniques will continue to evolve and help bridge the gap between people with and without dementia. Approaching conversations from a place of preserving the relationship and respecting the individual first won’t lead caregivers astray.
Lauren Fetten lives in Los Angeles and is a graduate of Scripps College where she studied Economics and Chinese.