My mother has Alzheimer's and thinks that my late father is cheating on her. How do we handle this?

Learning asked...

My 86 year old mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's the first of this year. My father became ill in January, was in the hospital until March, when he died. Mother remembers that he was in the hospital. However, she does not remember that he died nor that she attended the funeral. I have reminded her of these facts hundreds of times, which I found most stressful. The past week I have answered only what she asks..."Have you heard from your dad today?"..."Is he able to get up and around?"....etc. But, now she is convinced that he is chasing after the nurses in the hospital (she has dreams about this at night), found someone else, dumped her and could call and talk to her if he wanted to do so. Daily she is becoming more and more agitated at him. So, neither being truthful nor less than honest with her has worked because she forgets that he died and gets increasingly mad at him. Since neither approach has satisfied (or even soothed) her, what do I do now?

Expert Answer

Deborah Cooke is a gerontologist specializing in dementia, delirium, caregiving, and senior fitness. She is a certified dementia care provider and specialist through the Alzheimer's Foundation of America. Cooke currently manages several multidisciplinary programs to enhance well-being for hospitalized seniors and other vulnerable patients at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. She also serves on the board of NewYork-Presbyterian's Patient and Family Education Advisory Committee. She has 18 years of experience working with the aging and caregiver communities.

Wow! You have a very difficult issue and unfortunately, it is a very common one. I experienced the same thing with my grandmother too. I wish I could share some good news with you, but patience is going to be your primary friend here.

Patients who have dementia have their own reality and we cannot rationalize that reality or any behavior. It is what it is. I believe answering questions as they come up is the way to go. You can try answering them appropriately ("dad has left us, but he is waiting for us in heaven" or whatever you call the next life). It sounds like you've tried this but it hasn't worked. If you have a photo from the funeral, you may try using that as a prompt for bringing her around.

Sometimes, it's appropriate to allow her to vent and be angry. Losing someone or something makes us all angry. That's part of the grieving process. These are the things to keep in mind: be patient; do not rationalize; don't underestimate the value or redirection (the ability to redirect her attention to something else); and remember to take a deep breath to settle yourself before you react in a way you might regret.

There is no easy answer and I wish you patience and peace.