Living with Dementia: What to Say When Grandma's Not Nice

Dementia Can Sometimes Cause Grandma to Not Be so Nice
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Do you have a grandparent, parent, uncle or friend with Alzheimer's disease? If so, you might notice her becoming more forgetful, having more trouble finding the right words to tell you something, or some of the other cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer's. But, what about when your loved one begins to say or do some not-so-nice things?

When Alzheimer's Affects More than Cognition

Sometimes, dementia can cause people to say and do things they never would have done before.

While some people with Alzheimer's or another kind of dementia remain pleasant all the way through the different stages of the disease, others experience symptoms that can be challenging for those around them such as paranoia, hoarding, wandering, anxiety, anger and verbal aggression.

It's these symptoms that can be particularly difficult for loving family members to watch. They may be patient and kind to the person with dementia, and feel that it's a privilege to care for her. Yet, their loved one may recklessly fling about hurtful comments and accusations.

Examples of those Not-So-Nice Comments:

So, what to do when your loved one says things like this? How do you handle it? What should you say?

Suggestions for Coping

  • Ignore the comment.

    I know, it can be so hard to just let it go and not give the response it deserves, but it's really one of the better ways to respond. Argue and it may get everyone riled up. Use gentle logic and it may backfire. Ignoring can be a great response for your sanity and blood pressure, provided you're able to take a deep breath and a step back, both physically and mentally for a moment.

    Now, we're assuming here that this isn't the person's typical way of talking, but rather that the disease is affecting how they're interpreting the world around them.

  • Consider the source.

    By that, I don't mean that you should discount everything that Grandma says because she has dementia. What I do mean is that if her behavior and words are not her usual, consider that the disease, rather than Grandma, is responsible for the words and misbehavior. Remind yourself that Alzheimer's disease can affect personality since it affects the physical structure of the brain.

  • Use distraction.

    Rather than combat a sharp tongue head-on, try redirecting the conversation with distraction. "Grandma, would you rather have chicken or soup for dinner tonight? I'm going to go to the store and wondered what sounded good to you." Or... "Grandma, did you hear that Sarah moved out next door?" Or, if you need to get out of the room for a minute, you can try, "Oops, you just reminded me that I need to go check on the laundry." Might work, might not, but it's worth a try.

  • Reassure her.

    It may be that she just needs to hear that you (or her husband) care for her and love her despite her actions or her words. Sometimes people test others by pushing limits and need to know that even if they're difficult, they'll still be loved.

  • Respond briefly and then let go.

    If it's a particularly hurtful comment, you may need to respond with a short statement just for your own mental health and then move on. Try something like, "Well, Grandma, that actually hurts my feelings because I would never do that to you. Let's talk about something else."

  • Could it be true?

    If Grandma makes repeated or plausible accusations about others hurting her or stealing her money, take care with your dismissing of her claims. Paranoia and delusions are often a symptom of dementia, but you do want to make sure that you're not ignoring an actual problem such as elder abuse.

Further Resources:

7 Tips for Visiting People in the Early Stages of Alzheimer's

10 Tips for Visiting People in the Middle Stages of Dementia

6 Tips for Visiting a Person in the Late Stages of Dementia

Conversation Starters for Talking with People Who Have Dementia

8 Tips for Coping with Challenging Behaviors in Alzheimer's

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