Death & Dementia.

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“What happens when your residents die? Do your other residents get upset? Do they remember that person?” many people have asked me. 

Angela* has fairly advanced dementia and lives in our community. One day, we received some bad news. Her family emailed us to let us know that her husband, who lived outside the community, had died. They didn’t know what to do—should they tell her?

I emailed back and said that, no, they should definitely not tell Angela. Although it seems cruel to “keep her in the dark,” telling her the terrible news wouldn’t do any good. Her dementia is advanced enough that hearing this news would no doubt confuse her. Angela is beyond the point of being able to completely comprehend or deal with something this traumatic. Inevitably, she would soon forget what she’d been told, but she would still feel upset—she just wouldn’t know why she was feeling that way. 

Angela remembers her husband. When he would come to visit her, she’d go and greet him at the door. It was nice to see them sitting close on the couch, holding hands. It’s not fair, though, to force her to come to terms with the fact that he’s died: in her world, he’s still alive. Hearing it once wouldn’t count for anything, either. She would never recall that he’s passed away after hearing it once, twice, or two hundred times. In other words, it’s just not worth causing this woman any unnecessary pain. 

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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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