I often hear caregivers express anger, frustration or sadness that their loved one living with dementia seems to be in another world. They may believe they are living in another time or different place. They may forget your name or call you by the name of someone else they have known.
Rather than argue or correct their mistaken beliefs, we must put our own reality — and sometimes our own egos — aside to go to and accept their world, as hard as this may seem.
Admittedly, it is a painful moment when a family member you have known your whole life calls you by another name; but, your correcting or arguing is not going to change their thinking. It only risks angering them, hurting their feelings and eroding their trust.
When this clash of realities happens, the first thing we must do is take a deep breath, step back emotionally and remind ourselves: They are not trying to give me a hard time. They are having a hard time.
It will not help to tell them they are wrong. This only hardens the boundaries between your reality and their reality. Rather, remind yourself that what they believe, though not factual or accurate, is their reality, and as valid to them as your reality is to you.
In these challenging moments, we must remember the first rule of dementia care: Don’t argue, ever, about anything! Rather, avoid confrontation and look for opportunities to validate what they believe, even though it may not match your version of the truth.
For example, don’t say, “I’m not your brother; I’m your son!” Instead, try something like, “Thank you. I know you’ve always loved me, and I love you.” This keeps the issue of your identity entirely out of the discussion, but it tells your loved one you feel good about what they have said.
Caregivers may find this acceptance of their reality painful at first, but as you see beneficial results, you will begin to find it easier to go to their world. Validation eliminates points of conflict and reduces anxiety for both you and your loved one with dementia. It proves you are listening to them and that you understand their beliefs are important to them.
Like practically everything with dementia care, it is not always easy to do. But it gets easier with practice and patience. Don’t think of it as abandoning your own reality. Think of it as expanding your reality to bring the two of you into a world of better communication and mutual respect.
I can tell you from my own experience, when you learn to enter their world without judgment, you will discover some beautiful ideas and feelings that make it easier to replace conflict with compassion.
Debbie Selsavage is a certified trainer and consultant in the Positive Approach to Care and a certified dementia practitioner. Her company, Coping with Dementia LLC, is dedicated to making life better for individuals living with dementia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.