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Rethinking Frustrating Conversations

Thursday July 22, 2021

a cartoon girl with a frustrated expression and the words "Rethinking Frustrating Conversations"

Have you ever had a conversation with your loved one that went terribly, horribly wrong?

You are not alone. Dementia makes communication difficult. It changes the way you have conversations with your loved one. The old way of communicating won’t work anymore. Your loved one can’t think rationally. They don’t understand that something is wrong. They may still think they can care for themselves independently. And all this makes everything harder.

We often hear caregivers voice frustrations over conversations that did not go as planned. And caregivers often express anxiety over future conversations about sensitive topics.

There are 2 ways to have every conversation:

The Old Way – Be completely honest. Share all the information.

Often, these conversations do not go well. Your loved one cannot understand what you are saying. There is too much information. You are expecting them to use rational thinking, and it’s not fair to them.

The New Way – Be kind, thoughtful, and careful about what you say and how you say it.

There is a compassionate way to approach difficult subjects with your loved one. Take the time to make it easier on them and you.

Some examples:

Old Way: Mom, you have to take a shower. You haven’t had a shower in 4 days, and you smell.

New Way: Mom, do you want to get a shower before or after breakfast?

Why? The new way gives your mom a chance to choose. This will help her feel more independent. You aren’t demanding that she take a shower, rather giving her a choice of when.

Old Way: You forgot to take your pills yesterday. You need to take them now, so you don’t forget. We don’t want to have another bad day like we did yesterday. 

New Way: Dad, you asked me to remind you to take your pills. Here they are. (As you set the pills down)

Why? The new way makes it seem like it was Dad’s idea. You aren’t telling him he forgot but that he thought ahead.  Now, it’s his idea.

Old Way: I cannot do this anymore. You are going to live at a memory care place because this just isn’t working at home.

New Way: Mom, I know you have been worried that you are in our way here at the house and that you want your own space. I found this great apartment that I think you will love.

Why? The new way gives your mom a positive outlook. She is getting her own space again. This is a good thing that will benefit her.

Old Way: Honey, I can’t keep doing everything around the house. You are driving me crazy, and I need out of the house some. I have a sitter coming to stay with you, so I can go out for a while.

New Way: Honey, a friend (insert name) is going to come by spend some time with you today. I am going to scoot out of the house to run some errands while she is here.

Why? Having the conversation this way gives your wife the dignity of a “friend” rather than a “sitter.” It also takes away the tone of frustration and makes it something special for her.

Old Way: Mom, you can’t stay home alone anymore, so we have hired an agency to send sitters to stay with you. Last week you almost caught the kitchen on fire, so you just can’t be home alone anymore.

New Way: Mom, you know that I love you so much and that I worry about you when I can’t be here with you. To make me feel better, I am going to have someone be with you while I can’t be. I want to do this for you. She can cook and do housekeeping. Won’t that be nice, so you don’t have to worry with it.

Why? The new way takes away the blame and reminders that your mom can’t do certain things anymore. Instead, it focuses on your love and concern for her.

This won’t magically work 100% of the time, but as the saying goes, “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

And if you’re looking for more helpful advice on communicating with your loved one, check out our other blog posts on Respectful Communication and Communication Tips.

Written by Sheri Wammack, LBSW