Q: I will be traveling to visit my mother for several days. Every time I am there she asks me over and over how long can I stay and when am I leaving. I know this is probably due to her Alzheimer’s diagnosis but it is enough to drive me crazy sometimes. How do I deal with this?
A: Anyone caring for someone with dementia has probably encountered the same situation on numerous occasions. While it may sound like a broken record and it can be exasperating it is important to recognize why this is happening. The person with dementia sadly has experienced a deterioration of the brain cells. They are in the process of losing or have already progressed to the point they no longer have the ability to retain information. Their short term memory deficit can result in repetitive behaviors. The person is not doing this to aggravate you…they simply can’t remember.
Beyond the physiological explanation for the behavior, emotions can also influence what is occurring. The person with dementia may be struggling with anxiety, fear, stress or frustration. Professionals working with this population encourage caregivers to “respond to the emotions rather than the words”. It won’t always be clear but it is helpful to determine what is triggering a specific repetitive behavior. In your situation your mother may be upset you are leaving and she may even have abandonment issues. She needs reassurance you will be back to see her as soon as you are able.
An important point for anyone caring or interacting with someone who has dementia…it is unrealistic to communicate in the same manner you previously were able to do. Use short, direct sentences. Keep answers brief and don’t go into a long explanation. Families have sometimes found using a dry erase board is helpful. Write down dates, times or other brief information. Attempt to distract the person when the repetitive behavior is occurring. Change the subject, give them a snack or get them involved in a pleasurable activity. If a caregiver finds they are starting to lose their patience it is best to leave the room for a few minutes to keep their own emotions in check.
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Do you have a question? We encourage inquiries and comments from our readers. Please direct your correspondence to email@example.com or Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc., Age Information Department, 280 Merrimack Street, Suite 400, Lawrence, MA 01843. Joan Hatem-Roy is the CEO of Elder Services.