How to reply to, “You’ve abandoned me!”

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Do you have anything in your resources on what families can say to their person with Dementia that is saying “you have abandoned me and left me here alone”?  The Person with dementia is perfectly fine when the family is not visiting but they are tearful when family arrives. Also if the Person with dementia is saying their husband and parents have left them (but they have passed away).

It’s a common problem: the person living with dementia is having a great day, they’re enjoy programming, they’re eating meals, they’re sleeping fine…and then the family shows up.

Many times, as a Dementia Care Director, angry families would approach me and say, “Hey, my ____ says that nobody here feeds them, they hate it, and everyone is mean! What’s the deal?” I always had to assure them that this was a “kid at summer camp” situation. For many families, the person living with dementia delivers a totally different picture of what happens when the family isn’t there. Even though they’ve been having a good time, when they see the family, the complaints begin.

Note: if the person is genuinely unhappy, this is a different situation. I encourage families to ask dementia care staff members to send photos and videos of their loved one enjoying or doing things throughout the day.

When the person living with dementia is accusing you of something, know that arguing or deflecting won’t work: you need to hit it straight on.

Them: “You’ve left me here alone and you never visit!”

You: (You’re thinking, “I was just here yesterday!” but what you say is this) “I’m sorry you feel alone. I’ll do my best to come more often.”

I know that it’s painful and I know you want to explain how you’ve been coming often, but arguing or using a calendar to mark your days won’t work. It’s best to swallow your words, apologize that they feel badly, and promise to come more often.

The same goes for if the person is asking about friends or family that have “abandoned them” even though they’ve died.

Them: “Your father must not love me anymore, he never comes to visit!”

You: (Thinking about how your father passed away ten years ago, you say, instead) “I know how much he loves you and I’ll remind him to come over here soon. You’re so important to him.”

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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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