What do we tell a person with dementia about the loss of a loved one? This is something many families have had to struggle with. Do you tell grandpa that his wife of 48 years has passed away? A lot depends on the circumstances and the stage of dementia grandpa is in.
People who are in the early stages of dementia may be able to understand, grieve, and maintain the reality of the death of their loved one for a period of time. Eventually, however, they will probably forget their loved one has died, and begin asking about them.
But what do you do if grandpa cannot remember that his spouse is gone? Here is an excerpt from one of the stories in my book Kisses for Elizabeth, which demonstrates how to use common sense Alzheimer’s and dementia care.
"Henry was admitted because Grace, his wife of fifty-five years, a woman who had cared for him when his memory began to fade and confusion became a problem, had died suddenly of a heart attack. After the funeral, Catherine brought Henry home with her to live, but she found she could not provide the supervision he needed. Catherine was also upset because Henry could not remember that Grace was gone. He kept asking where she was.
"Over and over again, Catherine explained that Grace had died, but each time Henry heard this was like the first time. Each time he would cry and grieve most of the day. However, when Henry went to his room at night, Catherine knew that in the morning he would once again ask for Grace. This was so upsetting to her that she finally took the obituary notice that had run in the local paper and hung it on the refrigerator door. Each of them was suffering the loss of Grace...over and over again.
"We had to decide how to handle Henry’s question, “Where is Grace?” I knew we all had to have the same answer, but we were not going to tell Henry his wife had died. He obviously missed her, and we could not ignore his feelings. We decided instead, to acknowledge his concern and love for Grace. We would simply say, 'She isn’t here right now, Henry, but I don’t know her, why don’t you tell me a little about her.'
"After a few minutes spent talking about Grace, we would spin the conversation off to something else or follow it with some type of distraction like an offer to take him for a short walk or get him a cup of tea. This plan would certainly not work for someone who did not have dementia, but for Henry, whose cognition and memory were failing, it was the kindest thing to do."
I would recommend the same approach for anyone whose short term memory is failing. To tell them over and over about the death is cruel and serves no purpose.
Stephanie Zeman MSN RN