HOW TO talk to strangers about your loved one’s condition

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“I wish I could take her out to lunch more often,” he sighed. “I’m just really worried that she’s going to say or do something inappropriate. One time, for example, we were in the checkout line at the grocery store and she started loudly talking about the woman in front of us. It was so embarrassing. I didn’t know how to tell that woman that my wife has dementia.”

While potentially stressful, the good news is that it isn’t actually that difficult to talk to a stranger about your loved one’s condition. Save yourself some anxiety and an awkward interaction or two with these tips:

  • Recognize that most people are smarter and kinder than you may be giving them credit for. I used to take a group of my residents out for lunch on a regular basis. I usually told the servers ahead of time that my residents were impaired. One day, upon leaving a restaurant, we found that our bill had already been paid by a kind stranger. 
  • Most people don’t know exactly what dementia is, but they can understand it may impair someone’s ability to make appropriate choices.
  • Let someone know ahead of time (such as a server at a restaurant) that your loved one may need extra assistance or that you’ll be ordering for them.
  • Plan ahead when choosing outings. Keep them short and simple.
  • Avoid overwhelming and/or crowded places, such as the mall’s food court at lunchtime. 
  • Choose the best time of day to go out: most people living with dementia get tired or agitated in the afternoon and evenings at some point in their disease process. Try keeping outings to earlier in the day.
  • Finally, check out these cards or make some of your own! You can actually download and print cards from that link. “Pardon My Companion” cards are essentially little business cards you can slip to a stranger who may be wondering why your loved one is saying or doing the things they are saying or doing. Your loved one may not actually have an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, so you may find that it makes more sense to create your own. I recommend Vistaprint’s website for business cards.
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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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