Should I remind her that her sister died?

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dementia-by-day:

Grace was upset. Here they came again, these people, trying to move someone into the room she shared with her sister. Hadn’t she already told them? Her sister lives here! They can’t use that bed! Her sister would be back tonight!

Grace’s sister had died a few months earlier, but Grace did not remember that. Unfortunately, the staff was intent on moving someone into her room. It was a census problem for the staff and the management, but it was a moral problem when it came to Grace.

A nurse appeared at Grace’s door. “Grace, look,” she said. “This is your sister’s obituary. See? She’s dead.” Grace paused, looking at the paper. “That doesn’t make any sense,” she replied. “I just saw her ten minutes ago!”

When someone with dementia loses a loved one, why do we feel the need to remind them? The staff needed to let Grace’s sister “remain alive,” and it wouldn’t even take any work on their part. 

I recommended to this group that they actually moved a third bed into the room, keeping Grace’s sister’s “bed” open for her. Either that, I’d said, or forget about moving anyone into that room. It wasn’t worth upsetting Grace in order to increase the census!

Caregivers get really upset when they feel like they are “lying” to their loved ones with dementia. “Well, she thinks that her sister is alive, shouldn’t I remind her that she’s dead?” people will ask me. The answer: no. Why disrupt someone’s happiness so that you can deliver them the “truth” from our world? 

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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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