Only 3 Questions You Need in Dementia Caregiving

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These are my best 3 tried-and-true questions that you need in dementia caregiving. Are you ready?

1. “Where do you think they are?”

This is the question that you’re going to use with someone who has dementia when they are talking about a loved one who has passed away. For example, perhaps your mom is saying, “Hey, where’s my dad?” You know that her father (your grandfather) died years ago, but saying, “Don’t you remember? He’s been dead for years!” is a terrible answer. Let’s figure out where her reality is so that we can embrace it! Ask her, “Where do you think he is?” and then repeat that answer back to her. For example, it may go like this:

“Where’s my dad?” / “Where do you think he is?” / “I think he’s at work.” / “That sounds right, he must be at work.”

The great thing about this answer is that it takes you completely off the hook: you don’t have to come up with anything, and you won’t accidentally give them the wrong answer! I spoke to a staff member at a local SNF recently who told me about the wrong answer she gave one of her residents. “Uhh…I think your husband is at work,” she offered. “My husband is on disability, so he doesn’t work!” the resident called back, annoyed.

If the person you are caring for believes that their loved one is dead, you can also confirm this. The trick is to always repeat their answer back to them. You can also reuse their answer, without re-asking the question, multiple times in a row!

2. “What do you think about this?”

This is the question that you’re going to use when introducing a stuffed animal or baby doll to a person with dementia. Just like in the first question, we give the person with dementia the opportunity to tell us what THEIR reality is! We don’t want to introduce a stuffed dog and say, “Look at this real dog!” because they may say, “That’s not a real dog.” Let them guide you to what their reality is, and then do that.

3. “Can you help me?”

If you ask someone with dementia if they “want” to do something, what will they probably tell you?

They’ll probably tell you, “no,” even if they may have been interested in the thing you were asking about. If you ask someone “for help,” you’re actually asking a completely different question! I’ve done this many, many times with people who have dementia. The phrase, “Do you want to help me?” or, “Do you want to…” is very different from, “CAN you help me?” “Can you” inspires a sense that you are the one needing assistance, and everyone wants to feel helpful and needed!

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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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