“Where’s My Mother?” Answering Difficult Questions from Someone who Has Dementia

difficult questions

Often, individuals with dementia ask about and search for relatives who are deceased. These difficult questions evoke strong emotions for the rest of us: we may become anxious about how to respond, saddened when reminded of the person, or perhaps confused about how the person with dementia could forget their loved one has been gone for many years.

It is important to remember that the question may not be causing the same kind of distress for the person for dementia. So what should we say to them?  Should we tell them the truth?

Below are some helpful strategies for answering difficult questions from a loved one who has dementia.

  1. Address the underlying emotion

Likely, the person isn’t looking for their mother but rather feelings of security, comfort, safety and familiarity. Respond with actions and body language that promote those feelings for the person, such as physical touch, active listening, or a warm blanket or beverage. Check for and address any underlying causes of distress such as pain, thirst, or need for the restroom.

  1. Keep it light

Remember that while the question may evoke strong emotions for us, or make us confused and anxious about how to respond, it may not be the same for the individual with dementia. Do your best to stay positive and let the moment pass. It can help to answer with a supportive response such as, “I’m not sure where your mother is but I’ll try to find out,” then distract your loved one by changing the subject. For example, “I noticed that the sun is finally out – let’s go outside and see what’s happening in the neighborhood.”

  1. Remember that it’s ok to lie

The person with dementia is looking to you for validation that everything is as it should be, and reminding them of a loved one’s death will likely be distressing. Supporting feelings of safety and security for your loved one is more important than telling them the truth.

  1. Keep track of what works

When you find success in a technique, write it down! For example, if distracting the person by looking at pictures of puppies worked last time, use it again the next time a difficult question comes up. Over time, you can build a list of things that have worked well and it will be easier to address future difficult question.

  1. Seek advice

If difficult questions are becoming too frequent, distressing, or confusing, talking to a dementia care professional can help. Seniors At Home’s Center for Dementia Care is here for you.  Schedule a consultation to discuss and brainstorm interventions that support activities and engagement. 

To schedule a dementia care consultation email dementiacare@jfcs.org or call 844-322-3212.