The death of a loved one is hard on anyone, but this can pose a unique challenge when someone in your family has dementia. You may not be sure how you should tell the person with dementia about the death. What if they get upset and cry, but forget the next day and you have to tell them all over again when they ask for that person? How those with dementia cope with loss will be impacted by a variety of factors, such as the stage of their dementia, their relationship to the person who died, and their own personal way of grieving. Those who don’t have dementia go through set stages of grief (more or less) that involve acceptance of the loss, learning to live with the loss, and seeking out a new “normal.” This process is almost impossible for someone with Alzheimer’s. They may become agitated and restless, and while they may sense something isn’t right, they may confuse one loss with another. This most recent loss may trigger memory of losses from childhood. Let’s take this for example: Your mother may suffer from dementia. Her brother dies. You tell her he has died, but in her mind, the brother who perished was a child, as that’s how she remembers him. This makes the event even more tragic. All of these unknowns make it difficult on other family members to know how to approach the conversation. When do you tell them? How do you tell them? Should you repeatedly remind them of the loss when they forget in the weeks and months to come? This could make their grief much more painful. The role of a caregiver is never easy. Bringing bad news, especially news of death, to a person with dementia may be one of the hardest tasks you will face, so try to strike a balance between the right of the person with dementia to know the facts and their ability to absorb those facts, says Health Central.
Telling your loved one with dementia about a death is difficult. Here are some tips to help you through the process:
Tell them as soon as possible. They may sense something is wrong and will need information in order to understand, even if it’s just for a brief time.
Enlist the help of a friend or healthcare professional to tell them the news if you find you are too emotional to talk.
Pick a time for the conversation when the person with dementia is well-rested and seems coherent.
Use short, direct sentences without giving too many details that could overwhelm them.
Answer questions as honestly as you can.
Use to-the-point words like “died” instead of “passed away” or “at peace now.”
Don’t suggest that the person who has died will return later, as this may bring on agitation later when the person fails to return.
Support them with reassurance, such as by holding hands or hugging them.
Involve the person with dementia in the funeral planning. Assign them a simple task to make the death more real. They may even recognize the rituals surrounding death and act in an appropriate manner.
Assign a non-immediate family member to stay with them for the service (if they can attend), and who can remove them from the environment if they start to get agitated.
After the initial conversation, there are ways you can help the person with dementia accept the death over time, reinforcing the reality by:
Speaking in the past tense about the person who died, such as “I loved Dad’s holiday roast.”
Reminisce about the person who died, expressing your sadness. “I sure miss Mom. She was always joking around, wasn’t she, Dad? Remember when she….” and so on. Take out pictures and tell stories.
Realize they may not want to talk about the deceased loved one very often. Accept that, and take their lead.
If your loved one continues to ask to see the person who died because they have forgotten about the death, gently remind them their sibling, spouse, child has died. If this gets them upset, try:
Responding to their emotion, such as “You sound really frightened. I can help you with that.”
Checking in with their mood at the moment. If they are generally unaware and not feeling distressed, there is no need to bring up the reality of what happened right now.
Looking for patterns in the timing of their questions. If your father asks for your mother in the mornings, because that’s when your mom used to bring him his daily coffee, treat these times with extra sensitivity.
Use distraction when all else fails.
Every family has to come up with a solution that works for them. Be consistent, talk about the plan with other family members, and be supportive to the person with dementia. Family members should seek out support for themselves as well, to help them deal with the frustrating, painful and lonely feelings they are having during this time.