Helping a Dementia Patient with a Death of a Loved One

Oct 29, 2021 | Living with Dementia

My mother has dementia and my father just died. She talks about dad all the time. She has great memories of their lives together, but when he visited her memory care unit, she no longer recognized him. Do I tell her that he has passed? What do I do? Help!

Should I Tell My Loved One with Dementia about a Death? 

Losing a person that we care about is never easy, but we live our lives knowing that the people that we love, including ourselves, will eventually die.

We expect others to respect us and tell us when someone has died. 

Whether we are cognitively able to remember that a loved one has passed does not erase our humane right to be told that a death has taken place. That should never change. 

Grieving Process vs. Not Remembering a Death

Grieving is a process that takes time, and healing involves accepting the loss. 

Depending upon the stage of dementia your loved one is in, mourning may or may not happen if short-term memory is greatly impaired.

The time that it takes to heal from a loss often looks different compared to people that have no cognitive difficulties.

If your mother, for example, is in the middle stages of dementia, she may grieve over the loss of her husband for several days, and then her reaction may change from sadness to agitation. 

Due to her challenges with short-term memory, she may start talking as if her husband were still alive, and she might not realize what is agitating her at all – something is missing, but she may not remember what it is. 

So, rather than displaying signs of distraught feelings, like crying, or expressing sadness, she might instead lash out verbally or appear restless. 

How Should I Tell Them about a Death?

Dementia by itself is difficult enough for your loved one to deal with. It is stressful and painful for the family when facing the decision to talk about a death. 

Here are some helpful tips for talking with your loved one with dementia about a death: 

  • Talk about the death as soon as possible. 
  • Guard your emotions. If you feel too emotional to talk about a death, ask someone to do it for you, such as a close family member, trusted friend, or a chaplain. 
  • Have the talk when your loved one is rested and feeling well. Some people with dementia have fewer difficulties in the morning vs. evening, for example. Time the talk around your loved one’s best time of day.
  • Use clear but short sentences, “John has died,” as opposed to, “John is in a better place now,” or, “John has passed on.” Answer questions with as much honesty as possible but remember that too many details may overwhelm your loved one with dementia and can lead to confusion or agitation.
  • Support your loved one with comforting physical touch, such as holding hands, or hugging. 

How Do I Help My Loved One Remember a Death? 

Depending upon the stage of dementia that your loved one is in, they may or may not remember that someone has died. 

If they are in the initial stages of dementia, you can help them understand that the death is real by including them in the funeral planning.

Give them a special task related to the funeral, but also be prepared to remove them from the service if they become overly reactive or agitated. 

Your loved one may talk frequently about the person that has died, and this can be comforting for them.

Do not try to stop them from talking about what they find endearing – even if the person has passed on. 

The vocabulary that you choose can help your loved one accept a death.

Speak in past tense words. “I loved dad’s laughter.” “I sure miss dad. I remember when he made Mother’s Day so special for you.” 

If your loved one continues to ask for the person that has died, respond to their emotions with empathy without reminding them of the death. “You sound really sad. I am sorry that you are missing them.” “Let’s talk about what you are missing the most.” 

Behavior patterns (such as fidgeting and restlessness) can be indicative of what is missing in the life of any person with dementia. 

Your mother may have enjoyed sitting outside with a cup of coffee with your father after dinner.

Today, your mother with dementia may not know what they are feeling, but they know something is missing after they have dinner. 

To help your mother deal with the loss, consider creative ways to fill in the gap

Give her light tasks to engage in after dinner, or a social hour with coffee and friend(s), or activities that can keep her mind and hands busy, such as games, knitting or crocheting, puzzles, or a walk. 

There is no need to remind your loved one about a death, especially if it is upsetting to them.

Offer your sympathy, and then work on ways to distract them – to divert their feelings that something is missing. 

We Are Here to Help

We know that it can feel overwhelming and frightening for those of us who have senior loved ones with dementia, especially when we encounter new situations, such as death. 

We hope you find our blog series Living with Dementia helpful. 

We know that you want the best care for your loved one, and here at Sundara caring is what matters. Memory care is all we do…and we are really good at it.

If you have questions, we can help! Contact us online, schedule a virtual tour online, or call us at 512-399-5080.