“Should we tell her we sold her house?”

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If you were looking for a long-winded, confusing answer, you came to the wrong place. Put simply: definitely do not tell her you sold her house.

Why? Think of it this way:

In order to combat ANY sort of loss, we need a couple things in our mental toolkits, right? We need the ability to process, store and recall information, and we also need the ability to understand the passage of time.

A loss could be something like losing a relative or friend, moving from a home you’ve lived in for years, the sale of that place, the loss of a pet, or anything else that would cause pain.

People living with dementia do not have the ability to process, store and recall information that they heard. This is why it’s futile to tell them about a loss, even if that loss is serious. Telling a person with dementia that their loved one has died or their beloved house was sold is only going to result in pain. And then, twenty minutes later, they’re asking about the house again.

I recently had a caregiver ask me about this. She said, “My mom always talks about the apartment she used to live in. We still have it rented, but she isn’t ever going back there…what do I do when she talks about it?”

I advised the caregiver that avoid telling her mom she isn’t going back to the apartment, and even suggested that they stop renting it. “I know it feels like a betrayal,” I said, “but if she’s never going back there, continuing to rent it out of guilt is just a huge waste of money!”

People living with dementia also have trouble processing TIME.

When we’re dealing with grief, we need to be able to understand the passage of time. We need to be able to think back to the past and then to remember where we are currently. Consider what you always hear, “Time heals all.”

When you’ve been through a massive loss, you know that time doesn’t actually heal that wound, but gives you space to process and continue to live your life. When you’re living with a cognitive impairment, you do not have the same ability to process time, and therefore grief, the way that others without cognitive impairments do.

Telling a person with dementia about a loss is unfair when they can’t grieve it properly.

If you feel the absolute need to tell them about the loss (house or otherwise) consider the “why” behind that feeling. If it will ease your guilt and pain, you can try and tell them…but do it only once. Recognize that telling them may make you feel better, but it probably won’t help them.

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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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