Former carer Christina Neal reveals why it’s not a good idea to tell a person with dementia that their loved one has died when they have forgotten.
Mum was confused. That was nothing new. But the words that came out of her mouth left me baffled, upset and gobsmacked. ‘Your Dad hasn’t come home from work. I’m worried something might have happened to him.’
My Dad had been dead for a number of years. Mum was with him when he passed away and we all went to the funeral. This conversation was made all the more awkward by the fact that mum was talking to me on the phone. I was inexperienced at handling this sort of situation. I lacked knowledge and understanding of how to cope with questions about a dead loved one, so I did the wrong thing. ‘Mum, Dad passed away five years ago. We went to the funeral together. He had been very ill.’
Mum burst into tears. ‘I can’t believe I don’t remember that. I can’t believe he’s gone.’
I listened to her sobs down the phone, broken-hearted. At that point, I knew I had handled the situation badly. But how do you tell a loved one that their nearest and dearest – or in my mum’s case, the man she had been happily married to for over 50 years – has passed away when they no longer remember?
It was the one and only time I made that mistake. I knew from her reaction that I would have to handle things differently in future. Next time she asked after my father, I used distraction techniques and it worked. ‘Your Dad should be home by now,’ she said a few months later. I pointed towards the window. ‘Look at the traffic outside,’ I said. ‘It’s terrible. He must have been delayed.’
She nodded. I offered her a cup of tea. She seemed satisfied with my answer and pleased at the offer of a cup of tea. She didn’t mention him again. Her asking after him had just been a random moment. It was gone and forgotten in a few minutes.
The same thing happened on numerous occasions in the last few years of her life. She would ask for him every month or so. I would always come up with a reason why he wasn’t around. I would either blame the traffic or say that he’d gone to the shops. She was always happy with my response and she had always forgotten asking about him within a few minutes.
Some people ask if it’s right to lie to the person about their loved one. In my view, it’s justifiable. Professional carers refer to it as ‘therapeutic lying’, as they know it’s doing the person good. There’s no benefit in a person with dementia being told that their loved one is dead as they will grieve all over again, as though they’ve heard this for the first time. They will also be distressed that they didn’t remember their wife/husband or partner of many years has gone. If you want to preserve the feelings and emotional wellbeing of your loved one, then either distract them with another question, change the subject or tell a white lie. It’s in their best interests. If it’s not for malicious reasons, and you’re lying to spare the person’s feelings, then it’s worth doing.