How to call someone who isn’t alive anymore

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This post is inspired by a question I received the other day on my Facebook page about my podcast. (So many mediums to find me!) Anyway, this reader asked about her mother, who constantly wants to visit and call her own parents. My reader is distraught by how frustrated her mother is—“Why don’t they ever visit or call me?”—and doesn’t know what to tell her. I completely understand, and I have a solution based on something I actually did years ago.

About three years ago, I was working at a dementia care community and sitting in my office when one of my residents approached. “Hey hun,” Renata started. “Can you help me with something?”

“Of course,” I smiled. “What’s up?”

“Well,” Renata paused. “I…haven’t heard from my son in a while…do you think I could use your phone to call him?”

Damn it, I thought. Renata’s son had died a couple years earlier. Certainly, I did not want to remind her of this awful fact, but how could I help her? She was asking me a very direct question with a very obvious solution. I thought quickly and responded, “Sure!”

I picked up my office phone and dialed my cell phone’s number. I waited until it rang a few times and heard the start of my voicemail, “Hi, you’ve reached Rachael Wonderlin…” and turned to Renata. “It’s going to voicemail,” I said. “Would you like to leave him a message?”

“Oh yes,” she said, accepting the phone. “Hi Lenny, it’s your mother…I hope you’re doing well, just wanted to check in with you. Please call me back soon and let me know how you’re feeling.”

She hung up and handed the phone back to me. “Thanks, hun,” she said, sighing lightly. “I feel a little bit better.”

Renata never asked about calling her son again. Instead of solving the FACTUAL problem—whether or not she could actually reach this man—I solved the emotional one.

This is how you solve a dementia-related “problem” like this: focus on the emotional problem, not the physical, tangible one. Use the tangible things around you to help the person feel better, like a phone call. Never, ever use these tangible things to convince that person that their loved ones have passed away. Instead, find ways to make them feel like they’ve done what they set out to do.

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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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