Responding when Someone with Dementia Wants Her Mom or Dad

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One of the symptoms of dementia is disorientation to time, place or person. Couple that with memory loss, and the potential for confusion skyrockets.

Sometimes, this confusion is demonstrated in calling out for a mother or father. "Mother, where are you?" "Dad, come here!" The person with dementia may want the presence of a parent to provide security and reassurance in an unfamiliar setting, and she's forgotten that their loved one has died years ago. (Even if that setting is the person's home, it may not be familiar anymore to her.)

What's a good way to answer this call? What can you say to reassure and comfort the person?

Here are three approaches to try:

Validate the person's feelings by spending time with her, asking questions and reassuring her. You can try something like this: "Hi Fran, are you looking for someone? I heard you asking for some help. Can I help you with something?"

If she asks where her mother is, you can truthfully say, "I'm not sure. I haven't seen her lately." If Fran continues to ask for her mother, you can try these questions: "What did your mom look like? Was she a good cook? What was her best meal? Could she sing well? Did she have a job outside of the home? What color was her hair? What did she teach you? What did you love about her?"

Sometimes, when you use validation, the person may be comforted just by talking about her mother or father that she misses. Those memories may be enough to calm and reassure the person. At other times, validation can even help a person come to the point in the conversation where they say, "You know, I really miss my mom. She died several years ago."

  • Distraction

Meet the need of your patient or loved one by reassuring her in a different way. Help her focus on something different and enjoyable. Try this: "Mom, can we go for a walk together? I just really need to stretch my legs and I'm sure you do, too. Let's get some fresh air. I always feel better after breathing deeply outside, don't you? Can I get you a cookie to enjoy outside, too? Mom, I'm so thankful that I can spend time with you."

Occasionally, a situation develops where it's just better to be more direct and honest, even when it can hurt. For example, if your loved one is worried about her mother or father and believes that they're sick or in danger, it might be helpful, if they persist in their worries, to tell them that the person has already passed away so that they aren't anxious anymore about them.

In general, this approach is not recommended because it can potentially trigger the person to begin the grieving process all over again for the loss of the parent. However, in my clinical experience, there have been times where it actually provided relief for the person with dementia because they could set their anxieties aside.

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