Dementia isn’t easy! Not for the one who has it, nor for the ones who love him, and you never know what each day will bring.
But, take heart, friend.
All the daily losses don’t have to end in defeat, especially when it comes to communicating.
Yes, there will be clouds, but looking at the reasons for your spouse’s confusion, you can take some deep breaths and help calm the storms before they rage out of control.
Let’s take four examples.
1.“Where’s the Beef?”
Your husband finishes a three-course meal, licking his plate clean, so you clear the dishes. Suddenly, he complains he hasn’t eaten.
A] Remind him that he just ate, showing him his empty plate?
B] Serve up another helping of everything for him?
C] Throw up your hands and order pizza?
With Alzheimer’s or other forms of Dementia, your husband’s brain isn’t recording new memories. So as far as he knows, the bare table means he just sat down to eat instead of finishing up.
You could try to get him to remember, but that might frustrate him more.
Feeding him all over again? It won’t hurt once in a while, but it could also make him uncomfortably full. (Think Thanksgiving and how quickly you want to get into your stretchy pants.) There’s also potential heartburn, bowel issues, and unnecessary weight gain.
That’s right. Step away from the pizza delivery phone number.
What to Try Instead? “REDIRECTION”
Set toast or fruit on a plate for him and ask if he’d like to look at a photo album of the kids.
Giving him something small to munch on often satisfies him. And the photo album moves him away from the table, switching gears toward memories that he can re-live.
2.“The Broken Record”
Kids aren’t the only ones who ask repetitive questions, and respectfully answering your wife for the hundredth time can leave you with a fistful of your hair.
Your wife asks for her purse, which you give her. Gripping it, she asks for her purse again. You tell her it’s in her hand. A minute later, she asks what this thing is that she’s holding.
A] Tell her to be quiet?
B] Ignore her and walk out of the room?
C] Continue answering questions about her purse for the next half hour?
The cause of her echo could be several-fold.
No, she’s not trying to push your buttons. Because of her memory loss, she has no idea she’s already asked the question ten times.
But she also might not be asking the question she really means.
What does her purse signify? Is she
- Worried about money?
- Feeling unsafe? Anxious?
- Frustrated with her lack of independence?
- Bored, wanting to get up and go?
Or it could be she’s using the wrong word altogether. Maybe she really means “picture” instead of purse.
So trying to silence or ignore her will just leave her more frustrated.
And while you can answer her question a few times, repeating the same answer might not be helpful either.
What to Try Instead? DIGGING DEEPER, then SIDESTEPPING
Ask her what she would like from her purse…Then put on her favorite oldies to dance to.
Gently probing her questions could help explain what she really wants. Does she need a tissue? Her wallet? Does she want to go somewhere?
If she’s struggling to figure it out, put her purse away and deflect with some fun songs from your courting days. After all, research shows music is one of the easiest things to remember.
So enjoy a few dances with your honey down memory lane.
3. “What Time Is It, Mrs. Fox?”
This playground game was loads of fun in elementary school. Not so much as grown adults.
Unfortunately, with memory loss, hands on the clock mean nothing.
Every few minutes, your husband repeats the question: “What time is it?” Each time, you answer, finally giving him a digital clock so he can see for himself. He reads it correctly, but he still asks, “What time is it?”
At some point, you need to throw clothes in the wash or use the restroom yourself. You tell him you’ll be back in five minutes. True to your word, you’re back quickly, only to find him frantic because he was sure you abandoned him.
A] Tell him he’s being silly?
B] Point out his clock to him again, showing you were only gone for five minutes?
C] Go bang pots and pans in frustration?
As dementia progresses, TIME becomes a four-letter word, making five minutes feel like five hours.
And because different parts of the brain hold different information, your husband may not know what 2:30 means even if he can read it. (Like pronouncing words in a foreign language but having no idea what you’re saying.)
What to Try Instead? ADJUST and ADAPT
Print off pictures for him next time to show where you’re going, replacing his clock with visual timers.
Thank goodness for Google images! Download pictures of activities you might need to do in another room: washing machine, shower, vacuum, mailbox.
Then, when you need to leave the room, put the activity picture next to him so he doesn’t have to remember where you’re going.
When regular clocks don’t help, set out hour glasses, egg timers, or visual timers to show time passing, with how much has gone and how much is left.
Need a little longer than five or ten minutes? Put on his favorite old tv show like Dick van Dyke and tell him you’ll be back in the room by the time the episode is done. (Set the timer as an extra reminder!)
4. “My Baby Done Left Me”
This is probably one of the hardest things to watch as your wife struggles with dementia: The days she doesn’t recognize YOU.
She complains the family never visits even though they’ve been by every day, and your kids are starting to wonder if it’s worth coming since she doesn’t remember them anyway. Many days, she asks where her husband is. Or worse yet, you come into the room, and she screams.
Your heart wants to break.
A] Argue with her about who you are?
B] Correct her every time she gets one of the kids’ names wrong?
C] Wonder if you should stay away for a while?
No doubt about it, this disease is brutal. You feel like you lose a little bit of your lovely wife every day. The truth is, she probably feels the same, especially as she makes less and less sense of the world around her.
But arguing with her or staying away just makes it worse because she’ll feel more frustrated and lonely which makes remembering even harder.
She may be thinking of herself—and you—when you were in your 20s, 30s, 40s.
What to Try Instead? ENTER INTO HER WORLD
Ask her, “What do you miss about your husband? What’s your favorite thing about him?”
What she says may be a balm to your weary heart.
Let her tell stories about the kids when they were younger. Record these so you can replay them later.
And make a photo album or grab one of those special 13-year school-collage frames. Fill them with pictures of the two of you, showing how you’ve grown together through the decades. She can see the gradual progression of your faces and may have more days when she remembers.
“Finding the Silver Lining”
It’s hard to see anything good about this disease.
But take time to understand how dementia callously operates, and you can help your spouse make the best of it. Just think of where it will lead you: Telling stories with photos. Laughing through classics. Slow dancing to the golden oldies.
And fewer storms.
That will bring out some sweet memories.
Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. When she isn't teaching or writing-- Who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she's ALWAYS teaching and writing. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it--except for the fifteen months of winter. Read more about her at elizabethdaghfal.com.