What to Say When Someone With Dementia Asks to See a Relative Who's Dead

"Mama, is that you?" "Where's my daddy?" It can be startling to hear someone with advanced dementia calling out for a parent -- or to confuse a primary caregiver, even a spouse, son, or daughter, for a long-gone figure from the past.

What's happening? What remains of memory tends to be from very early life. It may come out not as whole-cloth stories of the past, as it did earlier in the disease, but in confused snippets. Remembering long-gone parents or other beloved relatives is common because a parent tends to be a security figure. Someone in the depths of disease talking to or about a parent may be feeling sad, uneasy, or anxious.

When you respond:

  • Don't waste a lot of energy insisting the deceased person being called for isn't alive. Correcting your loved one might only cause unnecessary distress. Better: Say something that sidesteps the issue, such as, "Your mama went out for a minute," or, "I'll be sure to tell him you're looking for him soon as I see him."

  • Keep the tone reassuring and agreeable.

    SEE ALSO: Find Memory Care Near You

  • You may choose to converse about the deceased person, even in the present tense: "Your mama is the prettiest woman I ever saw." "Your daddy works hard, doesn't he?"

  • Or, say something noncommittal ("You sure are a daddy's girl, aren't you?") and then distract by bringing up a new topic or serving a snack.


about 1 year ago, said...

I am in this scenario with my husband. He asks to see his Mom. I tell him she went to visit his sister. Or sometimes I say she went on a trip. However, one time that confused him because he said, "But I just saw her." He has hallucinations, so no doubt thought he had just seen his Mom. One thing for sure, Alzheimer's certainly keeps the caregivers mind racing to keep their loved one comfortable and anxiety free!


over 1 year ago, said...

The first time my husband asked to see his Mom I said, "Honey, your Mom died several years ago." In the voice of a child he said, "Oh, no! My Mom's dead!" I know I'm not supposed to let it, but that conversation still haunts me. However, I learned from it. The next time he said he wanted to see his Mom I said, "Honey, your Mom went on a short trip and as soon as she comes back we will go see her." He replied, "Oh, good." And that was the end of our conversation and he was satisfied. When we don't say or do the comforting thing, it is so important to caregivers to learn from it and do it differently next time. Thank you for the article. EVERYTHING helps!


almost 2 years ago, said...

Hi anonymous. I know it gets more and more difficult to answer the questions about your husbands mother buried in Germany. Find an answer that is simple and deflects the question. "I know dear! i miss her too. We leave in two days to go see her - isn't that great?" With as much excitement as you can muster. it should deflect his question, and let him know that you are excited about going to see her….


about 2 years ago, said...

My hubby is forever asking for his mother. She lived in Germany and died 22 yes. ago. She was placed on a high pedestal. Now I get woken up and asked to cal his mommy because he wants to go home. Return paintings back to her, ( we inherited it. Wants to go home by car. ( we might get wet). Thinks he is still in Berlin, left there when he was about 6, moved to N. America at 24. I am at a loss sometimes on what to do.


over 2 years ago, said...

That is one of the hardest parts in the disease or this monster; I find my brother in law as the holidays are approaching to be talking to a picture. Whith this action he does to me I have to step back ! I miss her too! It's hard with not grieving as a caretaker, because we need to be the one to carry this whole load! He's changed so much and this is what I see! The subject needs to be changed! If she's brought up! We are between 3 stages if this is possible? 5-6-7 can't do too much for himself. Sad !????


about 3 years ago, said...

My precious lady asks people in restuarants if they are her mother or sister (both dead)...and some men she asks if they are her son. I Just take her arm and lead her away...and whisper alzherimer's over my shoulder...most all the time they acknowledge they understand...if they don't....tough


over 3 years ago, said...

how does science know these things about memory snippets? what is happening to the brain?


almost 4 years ago, said...

These are all great tools that are tried, (by me) and true. My Mom and Dad cry to go home. I never say they are home, just that we will be going after dinner or in the morning but we have to get a good nights sleep first. It works most of the time.... Thank you for passing these on to those in need of answers.... XOXOX to every one in this situation.


about 4 years ago, said...

We are just getting to this point with my father (84 with dementia). It used to be my mother, who passed away 7 years ago, that he would look for. Lately he asks "where's mom" thinking I am his twin sister. The problem I have is that often he realizes after he's asked for someone that they are no longer with us. It's hard to know when to go along with "therapeutic lying" and when to remind him that they are no longer with us. I usually just try to change the topic.


about 4 years ago, said...

This was my problem 6 months ago when I first came to care for mom. It is nice to know that my natural instincts were correct. I am glad that while I had the chance, I acted appropriately and with love. Thanks for this validation.


about 4 years ago, said...

My Mom insists that she needs to go see her Mom who has been deceased for 40 years. She gets her purse and tries to get out the door. Distracting her doesn't work when she gets on this idea she sticks with it sometimes for days. It is exhausting and frustrating.


about 4 years ago, said...

Just the positiveness of how to speak to my mom. It's not always easy, it catches you off guard sometimes. These were helpful hints. Thanks


over 4 years ago, said...

My heart breaks for my mom when she ask for her mother. She has been doing this insistently. Her mother has been gone for over 25 years. i dont know what to say or do anymore to distract or make her calm. I have tried agreeing or reasurring her that her mom will be here soon. This is so awful ... she has expressed mistrust when i tell her that her mom will be here soon. I am alone with her most of the time and sometimes she does not even know who I am (I am her daughter). I do believe that she is extremely scared because she is somewhat aware that something dreadful is wrong with her, something she cannot understand, because her brain is deteriorating. I feel that is why she wants her mother. I do not know how to comfort her because I am in the present. Mostly she lives in her childhood world.... Is there anyway I can know for sure what stage she is in?


over 4 years ago, said...

It gives very understandable suggestions for coping.


over 4 years ago, said...

my mother does this often, and to explain helps only for the second you say it, for she asks again with the next breath....it is also taxing on the caregiver to hear over and over... so your suggestions for a reply helps me alot. thanks


over 4 years ago, said...

I have a mother who has dementia and it is extremely difficult to take care of her. Therefore, any correspondence you may send me on this topic is greatly appreciated. Please keep me on your emailing list and send me relevant material on the subject of alzheimers/dementia thank you!