Changing the Conversation


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I watched, biting my lip, as Jason tried explaining to his mom that her sister had died.

“Hey mom, remember my name?” Jason started.

Aw, great, I thought. This already isn’t starting out well.

“You remember Betty?” Jason asked his very-confused mom, Karen.

Karen sat in her wheelchair, facing him, but smiling into the distance.

“Mom, do you know Betty? She’s your sister. Do you remember Chelsea? Your niece Chelsea wrote you a letter here. This letter explains how your sister, Betty, passed away,” he tried again.

I was getting anxious watching this interaction. Karen didn’t understand, and, if she finally did, she was going to be really upset. My job is tough sometimes—there’s a fine line between stepping in and helping a conversation and stepping in and upsetting the family member who is visiting.

“…Chelsea. She’s nice,” Karen nodded.

“Yeah, but…” Jason started, again trying to explain that her sister was dead.

“Hey, Karen,” I jumped in. I grabbed Karen’s favorite stuffed animal, a Memorable Pet cat. “Have you shown Jason your cat?”

“Awwww, my kitty,” she said, taking the cat in her arms. Her eyes lit up and she turned to Jason with excitement.

Jason’s eyes lit up with happiness, too. “I didn’t even know you liked cats, mom!” he exclaimed. 

He reached out to pet the stuffed animal his mom was holding. I left the two of them in peace, petting the cat.

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

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