How to Respond When Loved Ones with Dementia are Confused

Last updated on February 23, 2024

If you have elderly loved ones with dementia, you most likely have witnessed their depressing battle with memory loss and other cognitive limitations. It can be heart-wrenching to hear them forget family members and friends, fail to recall recent events, or talk about deceased loved ones who they believe are alive.

You may be feeling helpless and dejected, but there are strategies you can use to reduce stress, circumvent confusion, and maintain a healthy relationship with your aging loved ones.

5 Ways to Deal with Dementia and Confusion

Dementia can cause your elderly loved ones to say outlandish things or become befuddled when out in public. You may shudder with embarrassment as they clumsily interact with neighbors, talk to store owners, or even chat with complete strangers.

Dealing with loved ones exhibiting dementia-related behavior, in private and public, can be disturbing. The following tips can help you manage difficult interactions caused by your senior’s illness:

  • Step into their reality
  • Seniors with dementia can find it hard to keep track of what is reality and what is memory or imagination. If you pull seniors with dementia into the “real world” by correcting them, you can sometimes cause more confusion, stress, fear, or even anger — which only worsens symptoms of dementia.

    Experts recommend, whenever possible, that you affirm and join your loved one’s reality. If your senior occasionally speaks as though they are living in the past, keep the conversation going without correcting them as long as it is not causing them harm. For example, if your senior thinks it’s Saturday but it’s Wednesday, there is no need to correct them – just let it go.

  • Use distractions and diversions
  • Experts encourage using situational distractions to help people with dementia stay calm and avoid worsening symptoms. For example, if telling your senior you are taking them for a medical checkup causes distress, you may tell them, instead, that you are going on a trip to the park and will stop for a doctor’s appointment on your way back.

    You may also choose to distract your senior from topics that cause stress or if you find they are stuck repeating themselves. Changing the subject to the weather or asking them to assist with a simple task can help diffuse the situation.

    Some people may feel guilty about using therapeutic distractions or diversions, and that is perfectly normal. Just remember the goal is to make your loved one feel comfortable and find a balance that works for both of you.

  • Use brief explanations and gentle corrections
  • Sometimes, you may have to correct a confused senior. In situations like this, do so as gently and briefly as possible. Reduce confusion and other negative emotions by phrasing your corrections as suggestions. For example, you could say, “Why don’t we take a walk together?” instead of, “I can’t let you go out alone because you’ll get lost or fall.”

    Be sure to use simple words and phrases that your loved one will recognize. Physical reminders, such as photographs, can also be helpful in gently reorienting a senior with dementia when necessary.

  • Respond to feelings, not words
  • Ask yourself what emotion might be behind your loved one’s words. If they are lashing out, perhaps it’s because they are afraid. In this case, you can reassure them that everything is okay, and perhaps offer them a hug or hold their hand. At all times, it’s important to respond calmly.

  • Take care of yourself
  • Although following these tips can help reduce stress for you and your senior, caring for a loved one with dementia can still be very demanding. Remember that taking care of yourself is important to avoid caregiver burnout. If you find yourself hurt by comments your senior has made, remind yourself they aren’t doing it on purpose.

If you need additional support in caring for your elderly loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, consider hiring a Visiting Angels caregiver. Our Visiting Angels care coordinators are available to discuss your loved one’s needs during a free care consultation.

If you're interested in our compassionate home care services for you or a loved one, contact your nearest Visiting Angels home care agency today or call 800-365-4189.
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