“Her memory is terrible, but she doesn’t have dementia” and other statements by people in denial

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“Well, mom probably forgot to call you back. I told her to do it, but her memory is just terrible,” Megan’s daughter said. “She doesn’t have dementia, though.”

What! Of COURSE mom has dementia. This was later confirmed when I met Megan and found that, indeed, her memory and decision-making skills were quite lacking. She was very sweet and conversational, but she didn’t even know what year it was. The worst part? Megan was home all day by herself.

This is the problem with family members who are in denial of their loved ones’ conditions: the person with dementia ends up getting the short end of the stick. They don’t get the care they need because the family thinks that “mom seems fine, just a little forgetful.” Mom isn’t fine. She has dementia.

NOTE: This article is not for people who have dementia. We never want to try and “convince” someone with dementia that they have dementia. This is for the family.

I often find that, when I talk to people in denial, they have a few things in common:

  • They have “the blinders on” for their loved one’s condition: they don’t see it, or claim that it’s much less severe than it actually is.
  • They suggest that their loved one can still live alone and do all the things they used to do, even if they’ve noticed a large change in that person’s condition.
  • They go to a family doctor that they’ve gone to for years who has told them that their loved one “seems fine,” even though the doctor hasn’t spent more than 10 minutes with that individual. 
  • The loved one with dementia has shown some serious red flags, such as forgetting appointments, arguing about unreal things, getting lost while driving, or becoming paranoid, which the family ignores.
  • They have multiple family members who all have extremely different opinions about the person with dementia and how severe the dementia is or is not.

How do you communicate with someone who is in denial? For example, you KNOW that mom has dementia, but your sister thinks that mom is fine and you’re being dramatic. Here are 3 tips:

  1. Call in an expert to be the interpreter. Find a reliable neurologist, geriatrician, or even give me a call! Your diagnosis may not mean a lot to your sister, but an expert’s explanation could make the difference.
  2. Use examples: over time, your mom has shown serious changes in her condition. Point these out and compare them with how she used to be.
  3. Encourage your sister to read up on dementia care. If she isn’t a reader, send her to my YouTube site!

Denial of a loved one’s dementia can have serious consequences. 

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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 three published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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