When a person with Alzheimer's repeatedly makes mistakes, is it OK to correct her?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Is it better to point it out or ignore it when my mom, who's 83 and has Alzheimer's disease, calls someone by the wrong name?

Expert Answer

Beth Spencer is a social worker in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with more than 25 years of experience with families who have a member with dementia. She is coauthor of Understanding Difficult Behaviors and Moving a Relative with Memory Loss: A Family Caregiver's Guide. Previously, she directed Silver Club, early-stage and adult day programs serving individuals with Alzheimer's disease and related illnesses.

It depends. After working with many people with memory loss, my feeling is that each person is different.

Much of the answer depends on your mother's level of awareness of her memory loss as well as her reaction to being corrected. Some people have a pretty keen awareness of their memory loss and want to be corrected. Of course, they'd like it to be done in a thoughtful, sensitive way. Others would be too embarrassed or would dislike being reminded about the effects of their disease.

My tendency is to not correct the person. I might say something more conversational, like, “Oh, do you mean Jenny?” instead of whatever wrong name was used.

If your mother calls someone by the wrong name, you don't need to apologize for her or explain that she has a memory problem. Everyone misplaces a name now and then.

Your ultimate goal in these situations should be to help your mom feel as good about herself as she can. Much of the time, people with Alzheimer's feel like failures because a lot of things are being taken away from them. Work to boost your mother's self-esteem as much as possible.

Diseases of dementia are diseases of loss -- your mother is losing functions, she's losing privileges, and she's losing her ability to live independently. Your job is to figure out how to support her during this difficult time.