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How do remind Mom her family members have died?

41 answers | Last updated: Oct 16, 2014
An anonymous caregiver asked...
My Mother-In-Law (88 yrs old) keeps asking where her Mother, Brother, Spouse are? They have long passed away. We tell her this, sometimes it satisfies her, and other times she will ask again in a matter of minutes. What is the best way to answer her? Do we take her to the cemetery, show her the obits? Thanks.

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70% helpful

One of the challenges family members face when they are dealing with a loved one with memory loss is the sometimes-daily repetition of questions, the answers to which have been See also:
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See all 897 questions about Alzheimer's and Other Dementias
given repeatedly.

The questions about dead relatives is a common one, and for your mother-in-law, each time she asks the question about dead relatives, it's the first time she's ever asked. However, for you it's almost like living inside reruns of the Bill Murray movie, "Groundhog Day" in which no matter what Bill Murray did, every day was an exact repeat of the previous day, with the same questions, the same answers, and the same situation as if the previous day had never existed. That for many victims of Alzheimer's is an active part of their disease progression.

Your mother-in-law has no memory of the death of a family member, and when the thought occurs to her that she hasn't seen her mother, brother or spouse lately, she has no recall of their death, and for her is simply asking a logical question "“ over and over and over. She is no longer capable of processing and retaining the information or the response you are providing because she is, at least in her mind, living in a moment in time when that now deceased person was still alive.

It's definitely not necessary to take her to the cemetery to prove to her that these relatives are indeed deceased, because within hours or days, she will not recall having visited their graves, and will ask where her dead relatives are today.

There is no solution to your mother-in-law's memory loss issues, but you can turn her forgetfulness into an advantage for you by responding to the question, "Where's my husband (brother, mother) by saying, "He's busy right now, but he said he would stop by to visit later." Your mother-in-law will not remember your response, nor see it as a lie, she will simply forget, and probably ask again later.

This is a technique of redirecting your mother-in-law, and using her memory loss to your advantage. However, you will not eliminate the repetition of those questions because that is part of the disease.


More Answers
78% helpful
magintob answered...

My 92 year old Mother asks me about her many siblings and husband who have alll passed away. Each time I answer he with the truth - that they have passed. Then we go on to talk about them and their lives and she remembers old stories... it becomes a beautiful time of remembering for her. I do not try to mislead her by saying they are coming soon - I feel I owe it to her to be honest. And she doesn't fall apart when she hears that they have passed for the umpteenth time. So I wouldrecommend just telling her again and again and again - not going into details but easing on to lovely memories of the person. She will not stop the asking as you know, but she will be happy with her memories as long as it lasts.


58% helpful
doforanimals answered...

This is a tough one. My mother forgets most everything you tell her, but some things stick with her and she'll obsess on it. For months. She has insisted that the cleaning ladies at her assisted living facility stole her towels, hair spray, scotch tape, lipstick, etc. and has obsessed on this for months. Yet other things she'll ask about, while you are answering her, she'll interrupt you to ask the same question.

If I tell her that her deceased mother, husband and son are "busy" and will see her later, she may obsess on this and get agitated when they don't come to see her.

There never seems to be a good solution to the myriad of problems this cruel disease creates. After trying various solutions that failed, I just bite the bullet and answer honestly the constantly repeated questions.


95% helpful
Journey002 answered...

When my 90 year old mother-in-law moved in with us at this time last year, this same question quickly became a reoccurring one. She would constantly say that she needed to call her mother and let her know where she was. Her mother had passed over 30 years before. She could remember that her father had passed almost 60 years before, but not her mother and eventually, not that her husband had passed 16 years before. Her very long term memory was excellent. It was the years in the middle of her life that she had problems with. At first, when she would say something about calling her mother, I would try the avoidance route with her and just reply that we would do it later, that her mother was probably eating at that time. This would work because I could then distract her with something else and she would forget she had asked about her mother. However, when this became a few times a day question, I thought I'd try the honesty route. Of course, this was met with shock and tears, occasional disbelief. My husband (her son) finally went and researched the cemetery where her mother and father were buried next to each other and was able to print off the information for her. She kept the information on her nightstand. That doesn't mean that she never forgot again, but, if it got to the point where she didn't believe it, we could go and get the paperwork and show it to her. It was always so heart breaking to watch her go through the emotions all over again. Towards the end (she passed in October), she was confusing her son with his father constantly. We would have to remind her that he was her son, not her husband, and then would have to tell her that her husband had also passed. By the time that she passed, she did not recognize her son any longer...yet, she recognized me as her son's wife! Probably because I spent the majority of the day with her and we became very close. I don't know if there's a right way or a wrong way to deal with this question. You have to do whatever you feel is best for the patient. If you go the honesty route, please be there for them and realize that it will be like it just happened for them. They will recognize that you're telling them the truth, eventually, just that they can't remember it happened. You will have to help them through their grief, however short it is. Be prepared and be patient. Be kind and loving. Give them the shoulder to cry on and listen to them. I loved the above reference to what a great time to reminisce about their lost loved ones. I learned so much more during those times than any other time with her!! I know that in my mother-in-law's more lucid moments and she could remember all of these passages, she would tell me how she so longed to be with all of them and that she was ready to go, whenever God called her home. I wish that she had been able to spend a few more years with us first, though. We did the right thing and did everything we could to help her cross over in the end, of course. She is finally with all those people she loved and missed for so many years and I know she is smiling down on all of us!!


82% helpful
monap answered...

My mother-in-law, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, often asked about deceased relatives, and we always told her the truth. Sometimes she would become upset when she heard the "news," but nonetheless we told her the truth, and comforted her as needed. We accepted that her repeated questions were part of her disease process, and that forgetting the answers was part of it as well.


88% helpful
KatieBee answered...

A 'white lie' is perfectly okay if it provides comfort for your loved one. Saying something like, "gone on vacation", etc. can work, but if it doesn't help, then telling the truth is best. In either case, this is a stressful and sad situation for you to face.


93% helpful
kathporter answered...

I try to walk a finely balanced line between lying to my mother daily and having her experience the grief of loss over and over. When she asks where her mom or dad or siblings are, I usually say "they're not able to visit, but they love you." then I go on to talk about them "how nice it is to have family. Having family and people you love is very comforting. Aren't we lucky to have each other." Sometime we reminisce about whoever she is asking about. I tried the honesty route once or twice, but I could not take the heartbreak of giving the news over and over again. Be kind to those you love. Kathy, Dallas


17% helpful
phishomi answered...

Would it be helpful to create a laminated one pager that lists the important people in her life that have passed on, when, where buried, with other info as appropriate? Then the aging parent can be shown the lamination when they ask about deceased kin.


50% helpful
An anonymous caregiver answered...

When my mother wanted to call her long-dead stepmother and was very anxious about it, I'd dial a fake number, hand her the phone and when no one answered, I tell her, "She's not there right now. We'll try again later." This usually helped. I will say, though, that she definitely could not tell when I was telling her the truth about her parents being dead. She'd just deny it. So it was much better eventually just to say "They're going to call you back" or, "I talked to them and they know you'll be coming home soon." That seemed to ease her agitation.


60% helpful
CapeCodRi answered...

I, too go through this with my 84y/o Mom. At times she believes that my Dad is still alive (and using her retirement money on other women!!!!) or that her own mother is still around and speaking with her. At first, on the advice of professionals, I "played along" but when she started buying things for my Dad (deceased 15 years ago) and calling places looking for him, I decided it was time to just say gently that he was no longer here. Sometimes she refuses to accept it, other times she just nods. It's difficult either way..... At Christmas she would ask about long lost relatives and where they might be, I would truthfully explain that so and so has been long dead. She was usually shocked but didn't bring them up again. Each day is a challenge and I pray that I am up to it!


100% helpful
An anonymous caregiver answered...

My 88 year old mother lost her favorite sister last September. She was traumatized by her death. She has moderate alz. and her short term memory is poor. She has never forgotten the fact that her favorit sister has passed away and talks about how she misses her at least four out of seven days. Her last remainig sibling passed away three months after her favorite sister. Now and then she will mention this sister and ask me if I have heard from her. She forgets that this sister has passed. When I remind her that her sister has passed away she will say that she has no siblings left and that she is all by herself. She then becomes very sad. We remind her that she has her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. She says that's true but my siblings are all gone and again will say she is by herself now.


100% helpful
Yellowrose answered...

I do not currently have this situation with my mom, but I wanted to thank each one who shared their experience. These helpful comments, I'm sure, will help me when the time comes.


67% helpful
Belltoll answered...

I have to tell "white lies" to my wife. When she asks where her parents are I have to tell her "I'm not sure. They're not here but will come by later." She thinks she's 14.


33% helpful
marykate924 answered...

My husband and I say to my mom when she asked about someone deceased like her parents we usually ask how old are you and usually she will say 75 and then we say if you are 75 how old do you think grandma and grandpa are? Usually she gets it and realize how old they would be and not talk about it again for at least the rest of the day.


50% helpful
lmartin answered...

Does it truly matter that she remember? No. Just go along with her and maybe a gentle reminder when need be but it really doesn't matter. We didn't even tell my dad when his sister died. He wouldn't remember and why should we hurt him for a few seconds needlessly.


80% helpful
KEW's Daughter answered...

My mom would ask where "our" mother is -- my grandmother was a nurse and worked the night shift. Mom asked this at night and she thought I was her sister. So I just told her she was working at the hospital and she was satisfied with that.

Rather than put her through the trauma of telling her certain people were dead (mom, sister, etc.) I just made up excuses and I don't regret it. She has enough pain.


50% helpful
FrankC answered...

It's a personal call, but I believe honesty in telling someone with dementia/Alzheimer's/Lewy that someone they've asked about is dead seems mean to me. They relive the death like it's just happened, and it's a shock, as it was the first time when it really happened.

To be honest in this situation is the need of the caregiver, not the care receiver, and that's who we're all working to help. We just tell mom that he's run to get parts, he's at the hardware store, he's working on the truck, person-appropriate activities that make sense to the care receiver. It gives them peace and calm.


100% helpful
HHofA2 answered...

Thank you all for your ideas. I find that no one answer fits every question and that changes sometimes with every day. It is hard sometimes to know if it is a slip of the tongue (husband/son) or a real identity issue. Keeping the loved one 'at ease' appears to be the main goal whether done by truth or 'white lie'. Many thanks again - I love this website!


45% helpful
niclwil answered...

I am completely blown away by some of the answers. Do you people enjoy torture? Reminding them of deaths is like pouring salt in open wounds. "I have to be honest" is a total myth. Selfish even. The people with Alzheimers have often regressed to a previous era in their lives. They may be 12 or 13 years old in their minds and of course their parents are still alive! Just use fiblets (little white lies) to placate them and move on to something else. There is no good reason to cause them pain. Their reality is very real to them so just go with it.


dustypooch answered...

My Mom is 90 and constantly asks for her Mom, Husband and son all whom have died years ago. At first I told the truth. Mom then cried miserably for a half hour. I agree with niclwil. There is no good coming from telling her the truth. She's going to ask the same question-maybe not tomorrow-but certainly the next day. I cannot put her through that misery over and over again. There's no reason for it. I try to change the subject right away or tell her a little lie that they won't be home for a while. We move on to another subject and everything is fine.


100% helpful
An anonymous caregiver answered...

To Niclwil: Hey, don't be so judgmental. When I would inform my mother (over and over again) that her father was dead, she just reacted with surprise and said, "Oh, I didn't know that"--although she loved him very much. Once, she asked, "Really? Who shot him?" So--everybody's different, even with Alzheimer's. But if she'd ever seemed upset by the answer, which she didn't, I certainly would have lied.


100% helpful
Newdayeveryday answered...

I don't think there's a wrong or a right answer to this. If you find that your loved one cries and is miserable with the truth, and you're more comfortable with an alternate reality, then tell them what you think is best. In my experience, my 91 year old mother-in-law, with moderate AD, asks these same questions several times within a couple of hours or less. We calmly answer that whoever she's asking about has passed. She doesn't eem any more upset about it, and acknowledges that she did know that. Sometimes she asks in the form of "(whoever) died didn't he/she". At some of these times, we look in her big family Bible and look up the date of the death, discuss how old they were, remind her of the funeral, if she was there, and so on, quietly reminiscing for awhile. She never seems to get emotional and cry about this anymore. She says things like, "That's too bad" or "I really loved him" but doesn't get weepy. Maybe things will again in time, and if they do, if she's calmer and happier with something other than the facts, then that's what I'll tell her.


57% helpful
An anonymous caregiver answered...

Ya know, I come to this web site looking for some answers. And most times I do. But I find myself getting really annoyed with folks who think they have all the right answers. Let's face it, we are all going thru a REALLY tough time in our lives-us and our loved ones stricken with the horrible disease. Way too many times each situation is different. There are different stages, different moods, different personalities etc etc. I hate to see someone state that someone is too judgmental, or doesn't have the right answer. I'm learning there is no right answer! I'm just as confused as many are. We need to listen to each other and take the good points we can use. The main thing is we need to show our love and support.


100% helpful
Journey002 answered...

I'm thinking that people are being a bit too judgmental towards some of us that chose (choose) to tell their loved ones the truth. You did not walk in our shoes and, therefore, its very presumptuous of you to say what is right or wrong. Everyone's situations, yet alone each occurrence of this topic, is absolutely different from anyone else' situation and occurrences. Certainly in my situation, if it was as simple as my mother-in-law wanting to phone her mother while we were maybe sitting down at dinner, I would reply with, "Let's do that later", and she was fine with that. Of course, she would forget by the time we were finished eating and the topic then was avoided. On the times that she was more insisted, my husband and I made the decision to start telling her the truth. She was a very intelligent lady before the Alzheimer's took over and she always lived with honestly, love and loyalty. When she agreed to move in with us, she had me promise her that I would be honest with her...about everything! How could I not honor that promise?? She deserved not to be lied to. The odd thing was that when we distracting her or not telling the truth, she asked about her departed loved ones constantly. Once we started telling her the truth, it was like somewhere, deep down, she got it and didn't ask anywhere near as much. Again, I think each situation is different and no one should ever be made to feel bad decisions they have made in connection with this topic. You know your loved one best...think about what is right for them at the time of the question and follow your instincts. Good luck, everyone on this!!


100% helpful
lmartin answered...

I think it depends on what stage you are in, too. At the beginning honesty can be good, but as the person advances the need for complete honesty is not necessary no matter how intellegent the person was, they all loose themselves eventually to the disease. As a matter of fact most people that I know who have or had alzheimers was very intellegent and hard working, but alzehimers doesn't care.


Belltoll answered...

Sure, each Alzheimer's victim's symptoms may be different and so there is no "right" answer. My wife's mother died recently and in the begining I told her the truth, but each time I told her it like she was hearing the sad news for the first time. It was cruel to put her through that grief multiple times. Now I just tell her Mom's probably at home or "shopping" and we'll call her later. Redirect.


100% helpful
HHofA2 answered...

Individualized responses is a good guide for me. Some suggestions work, others don't, I'm grateful we have a variety to choose from. Keep the dialog going!


25% helpful
Jeciron answered...

Esther will sometimes tell me her parents have been visiting and wonders where they have gone, or if their coming back soon. I hated to lie to her, but she could not be convinced of their death. I finally adopted the attitude that they are still alive in her memory, so when she asks if their coming back I know that they will be returning in her memories and I can answer, "Yes, but I'm not sure when." It feels like less of a lie and I don't have to go through the effort and unhappiness of trying to convince her that they have died.


86% helpful
RDee answered...

Okay, seriously, this goes on ALL day here. My mother-in-law lives in my home and has been here for the past seven years. She shows no sign of leaving. Her body is 100% and that of a much younger person. Her mind, on the other hand, is toast. I agree with the white lies. So what?! Is she going to remember what I just told her two minutes ago? Is she going to process that I am indeed fabricating an answer? Heck no! So lie. It's okay! Is God going to be angry at you for this? I doubt it. In fact, make a game out of it. Instead of getting angry or annoyed that you were just asked this question nano seconds ago, answer it differently. Be creative. Be fanciful. Have fun with it. Yes, I said f-u-n. You can wallow in misery, you can be frustrated by disbelief that you just answered the question 80 times in 2 minutes, but have fun with it! There is not enough laughter in our days as caregivers anyway. It is grueling, it is time consuming, suck-the-life-out-a-person's-soul horrible, so look for a way to make it less awful. Your loved one doesn't care, they're just asking a question that they think is one YOU haven't heard before. Don't say, "I just told you." Don't scream, "They've been dead for 22 and 75 years." (respectively our case for her mom and dad) Tell a lie, a sweet, little lie. Make it seem normal....Yes, normal. Who the hell cares? If it gives her a little peace and comfort and if it gives you the caregiver a moment of quiet for yourself, lie, lie, lie.. It may also bring a smile to both your faces and God knows, we need more of that in our DAZE of caregiving.


100% helpful
lmartin answered...

Your mother in law will NEVER REMEMBER. That is the point that we are all trying to make. You can tell her 100 times a day and she won't remember a second after you tell her. She can't lay down new memory and she can't get to the place in her brain where this memory is. Make something up. They are on vacation. they went to the store, you haven't talked to them in a while but when you do you will let her know. they went for a walk.....whatever it takes to make her feel at ease. She will never remember again!! ever!!


kwrite13 answered...

I have no problem with a white lie, my Dad doesn't like doing it though. Mom frequently asks this question, usually when she thinks I'm her sister. I tell her the truth. She doesn't seem to be unduly upset. She just says oh, yes I forgot or that's what I thought. Sometimes in reference to her parents I will remind her how old they'd be since she is 90. She will say oh, yes they'd be really old now wouldn't they. And we go on to talk of something else. If she seemed upset when I told her the truth I would find something else to say. I have noticed my Dad has written out her families birthdates and who is living and who isn't for her numerous times, which Mom keeps about the house. At first it upset me when she thought I was her sister not her daughter. Now I just go along. Besides I learn interesting family tidbits that way since I am the younger sister who can't remember when these things happened. I can be her daughter and both of her sisters off an on throughout the same day. My Dad is always her husband though, even if we are sisters and young. You got to keep your sense of humor.


wowmomma answered...

I tell my mom the truth that my dad passed away several years ago. She just looks at me like I am crazy. I give her the same answer every time she asks, then I change the subject, if possible.


CA-Claire answered...

I have already prepared for this. Dad will most likely pass before Mom (they're 90, born 22 days apart). We will be telling her that Chevron sent Dad back over to the Middle East (he was there in the 50's for work), and that he'll be back in a few weeks. Of course, Dad's been retired for 35 years, but that doesn't matter - it will fit with where Mom is in her dementia. We already deflect multiple questions with answers that either make us smile, or are the actual answer to her question.


33% helpful
diward answered...

Everyone of us is different..just like our loved ones are different. My brother WILL NOT LIE to our mother..even if it means tears & heartache, while I have no issue with 'therapeutic fibs' as one of our friends calls it. Mother often asks how her Mother and Daddy are as well as when is her husband coming to get her. It depends on the context, the day and her mood as to what answer I provide. We previously had a sort of script that we all followed, so we all provided the same answers. but have realized she does not remember any of our answers so we now choose our own path.. My brother anguishes with her over the loss of her parents ( who died before he was born) and our Dad, while my niece rolls her eyes and says..'Papaw went to the Outer Banks fishing' and changes the subject. Just like she did when Papaw was still alive. All of us have do what we think best for our loved ones and for ourselves. I am occasionally offended by some responses on this site, but if I go back the next day and reread them I often see them in a completely different light. We are blessed to have this site and each other. This is NOT an easy road we are traveling. I am thankful for all the options and ideas we share.


50% helpful
doforanimals answered...

I like how diward's friend refers to the explanations as "therapeutic fibs." Sometimes that's what it takes to smooth over the situation with a confused loved one. Handling the situation may differ from day to day in that what works one day, doesn't work another. Also, different personality types require different handling. The bottom line is to keep the person with dementia from getting agitated, while trying to maintain your own sanity.

I often find these discussions helpful. I've tried some of the suggestions. Some work, some don't. It's also helpful knowing others truly understand this stressful situation we're in. What I don't find helpful are the comments that scold and criticize. This is supposed to be a place of support. Throw life preservers, not rocks.


An anonymous caregiver answered...

I will have to agree with the poster who stated everyone's different with alzheimers/dementia. My mom has dementia and ask about her deceased mom or love ones and I always tell her the truth. I never lie to her. I don't even have a clear conscience lying to my mom even with dementia. I think this is due to the way they raised us as kids. Thank God, my mom falls in a different category because she has always had a spiritual understanding about death. She believes and still believes death is the will of God, it's unforetunate but something that will happen to us all she says. She always smiles and say....I just want to be ready when the good Lord calls me home...I then agree with her. I love it that she still have such positive and heavenly insight on death...like shes/he's in heaven now. But I am really thankful to read all these posts to see how many handle this. I would hate to think how I would handle it if my mom wasn't so recieving and positive minded about things. My heart goes out to you guys. God bless.


CA-Claire answered...

Well, I looked at my answer from a year or so ago, and things have changed so much. Dad recovered from his life-threatening hiatal hernia. Mom received a diagnosis of mesenteric cancer last halloween. She was given days to live, lived nearly 10 weeks. Towards the end, when she was unable to swallow food or water, she would talk frequently about her mother (died 50 years ago) as if she had just left the room. Who am I to say that my grandmothers' spirit had not visited Mom? I would tell mom that she must have just left the apartment for a short time, or I must have just missed her. Mom would then give me a quizzical look, and say that her mother was dead. I would just say 'Oh', then go on to something else. We never know what our loved ones can see near their time to leave us. Dad always told mom the truth that her mother was dead. We let him be the stern one, since he was with her 24/7.


Smathy DFW/TX answered...

I agree we don't have all of the answers and I appreciate allof the ideas everyone has posted. I tried the "oh he'll be back in a little while" answer or something like that to my stepmom when she wanted to know where my deceased father. For her that didn't work because she would then get upset and suspicious and start saying he's probably up to no good. Of course it didn't help that they had some difficult years in their marriage. But she would become relentless and upset about what he could possibly be doing and i could not convince her everything was ok until I finally said, he's in heaven. Then she would finally stop. So basically for her in our situation it was actually better for her state of mind to know he has passed away. She would just say "oh, ok". She would not cry. Sometimes she will remember that and say "why can't I remember that" and say "I sure miss him" or "I sure loved him". Thanks for everyone's input.


100% helpful
different answered...

I've read most of the comments in this column, & again, despite the many who have written that each situation is different, far too many of you nonetheless claim that one way of approaching different afflictees w/ the truth or postponing or distracting techniques don't allow for differing responses from whatever combination of personality, distorted memories, and affect the alz pt. exhibits in a stage of AD. For example, for some (like my Mom) distraction doesn't always work, and she'll wander the neighborhood, or bang on neighbors doors, or try to call the police if the loved ones remain "lost" or silent. Many times daily she begs my brother to take her to see her parents, but nasty weather, job & transport issues haven't slowed her requests--nor numerous fake phone calls "ya just missed him" delaying her proposed visit at "her folks request". All the little idiosyncrasies of personality, physical health, the precise remaining memories, and the intimate nature of the rltnshp at different moments in time leads to many suggestions that can never be the correct solution in every case for every alz patient.


100% helpful
conned answered...

The good thing is, you don't have to explain it to her satisfaction each time. Come up with a "standard" answer if she wants to know where they are or why they haven't visited her, and you can confidently give the same answer each time without having to cause your SELF anymore grief. Because just as her questions are new to her each time she asks, your answer will be new to her each time she hears it. Say, "They are out of town but will be back soon." Or, "They can't make it today, but don't worry about it. We'll see them before long." Something that will put her mind at ease for now and at least temporarily allow the conversation to move in another direction. It worked with my dad. I kept trying to explain to him why he was in a nursing home, that his best friend had already died, that no it had not been 2 months since I was there to see him. Finally a nurse said, "Don't explain things to him anymore. It just upsets him. Just focus on the here and now. 'I'm with you dad right here, right now. Can I read the sports scores to you from last night?'" Sometimes a parent insists on pursuing pointless ruminations or questions, and you have to let them because there's really no alternative. Give yourself permission to leave the room if this bothers you. Or encourage the parent or loved one to remember a really good experience from the past. Like, "Do you remember when we went to the state fair and got to ride the reverse rollercoaster?" Let yourself move on to a better place in your mind, whether they can or not.


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