Is that dementia-related “behavior” worth worrying about?

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I often meet people who tell me about their loved one’s “behaviors” and ask how to “fix them.” My first question is this: Is that behavior worth worrying about?

Let’s take a few examples and decide which ones we should be worried about finding solutions for.

  1. They’ve begun to urinate in the house plants, thinking that they are outside
  2. They yell at the mailman, concerned that he is “keeping” some of their mail 
  3. They think their spouse is still alive
  4. They accuse a relative of stealing money from them
  5. They have trouble taking a shower because they don’t like the water hitting them

Which of these five are most concerning to you? 

There is no one-size-fits-all answer here. For example, maybe in your house, keeping your loved one living with dementia away from the mailman isn’t a big deal. Or, maybe it is a big deal: you’ve had a great relationship with your mail carrier for years, and this constant bickering is quickly causing rifts in that friendship. 

Normally, I’d say that #3 is NOT a big deal: please, please, please Embrace Their Reality. Don’t argue and tell them their spouse is dead, or try to convince them otherwise. However, if your loved one living with dementia is constantly trying to take the car to go visit their spouse at work, you may have a problem. In this case, we need to ensure that the car is not available. We also need to keep them feeling safe and reassured that their spouse will be home soon.

Most of these have pretty easy solutions:

  1. Remove the house plants
  2. Time it so they are occupied when the mailman comes, or explain to the mailman the situation so he isn’t upset
  3. Embrace Their Reality(!)
  4. Let them know that, while you don’t believe it’s true, you will “look into it for them”
  5. Wrap a towel around their shoulders so the water his the towel first, or switch to a bath
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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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