Did your life change the day you had dinner with Mom and Dad, and Dad told you who he met at the bank that day, then told you again fifteen minutes later, and maybe again, as you were leaving to go home? Short term memory loss is one of the first discernible warning signs of dementia, and no matter how many times your parent displays it, you’re still at a loss to find the best way to react. Guess what? There is no one best way.
Listening is the easy part, but what do you do when you’re faced with the same question each time you visit? Maybe several times each visit. Some are easily answered. Dad wants to keep up with what’s going on in your life so he keeps asking, “How old is Jimmy now?” “What grade is Diane in this year?”
Depending on your mood, you play a game with yourself, testing your own memory to see if you can answer with the same words each time. Or maybe you offer some details, hoping they’ll help the information stick in his memory. The most important thing to remember here is what lies behind the question. Dad’s ability to retain details is gone, but he’s still their doting Grandpa and he’s asking because he loves your kids. If you can remember that, it’s not so hard to be patient.
But sometimes the question is more challenging, such as “Where’s Mom?” Or “How is Mom? Why hasn’t she been in to visit me?” Sounds simple to answer, and it is if Mom is well, at home, and came in earlier that morning. It becomes difficult and heartbreaking if Mom passed away – last year, last month, or even twenty years ago. What do you tell him?
There is no one way to approach this, and you will probably have to approach it repeatedly. Remember: no matter what you say, how you say it is just as important.
The first time he asks, you might want to tell him very simply “Mom has passed away.” Let him process the information. Give him the space, time, and quiet to grieve as he sees fit.
The next time he asks, reminding him that you already told him is futile. It may agitate him or make him feel belittled. Whether or not to tell him again that she’s passed away is your decision. Some feel that their loved one should get a completely honest answer every time. Others feel it’s too much to put a person through grief over and over. You might tell him again, and reassure him that he’s okay, she’s okay, and you’re here with him. You may choose to dance around the question and simply say something like: “Mom is doing fine.” You might distract him by changing the subject, and avoid answering the question.
Sometimes the simplest path to take might be saying Mom’s not here now. It’s the truth. Then talk with him, listen to him, and try to gauge where he is right now. Where does he expect Mom to be? How old should she be? Keep in mind that his reality is not necessarily anchored in today. Determine where it is. From there you might try to elicit memories, and in a way, bring her back to him, if only for a short while. In so doing he might even realize the difference between now and then, and acceptance might come a little easier. Going over old family photos is a subtle way to note the passage of time.
Over time, consider how he has he reacted to your previous explanations. Does telling him over and over reopen the wound? Keep in mind that his capacity for cognition has diminished but not his capacity for emotion, so say what you say with all the respect, care, and love you feel. There will be many times when this isn’t easy. But the more your responses come from your best self, the one who’s trying as hard as possible, the more likely you are to be at peace with this time looking back on it later.