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

9 answers | Last updated: Mar 28, 2016
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 Answers

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. She directs Silver Club, early-stage and adult day programs serving individuals with Alzheimer's 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.

Community Answers

Adjunct prof.rosellfernandez answered...

pretty good answer which demonstrates you are aware and actively involved.."work to boost your mother's self-esteem as much as possible:

excellent correct. here is my experience Stop eating processed American foods, stop eating out of aluminum pans,stop drinking America's favorite drink Coke or any other soda in an aluminum can. You need to do more than puzzles, read critical material..of your interest, dabble in the arts if you are already highly educated and have been a thinker...create with your hands sculpture, paint, learn an instrument. Get treated for underlying depression.

LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE.Enroll in senior citizens classes in other words get up off your duff and stop thinking that retirement means sitting around enjoying the sunshine. Don't be obstinate,pray and think use your brain mind and soul.

Dementia called a part of the Alzheimer's syndrome does improve if you out live it.. nobody had any of these diseases at 100.

I saw my mom go through the first stages, (talking to herself, soiliquys, accusatory , suspicious, sometimes caustic and hurtful.

I chose to ignore what the medical profession said and treated her as normal, we fussed and carried on.. she lived to 94,speaking 2 languages i spoke to her about politics, music, my opinions, family in OTHER WORDS I ENGAGED HER IN INTELLIGENT CONVERSATION. I played Chopin, classical music helps,prayed with her encouraged her..in the end she died from malnutrition at the hands of so called medical professionals.

Frena answered...

I'm sorry to disagree so profoundly with Roselle Fernandez, but i suspect her professorial expertise in not in alzheimer's nor anything medical. and i'd hate to see family caregivers caught up in trying to improve and harass their elders with dementia into unattainable improvements.

absolutely let's support, encourage and help our folks with dementia. But that isn't achieved by attempting to "force" them to improve. people with dementia given puzzles and tests become distressed and confused to the max. Because they don't have a disease they can "choose" to overcome. They're ill with something which is often physically attacking brain structure and therefore thinking processes.

someone who's depressed (a condition often confused with the assumption they have dementia) can undoubtedly be encouraged to re-engage with life and activities.

people with dementia do best when helped to re-engage with their own sense of humor, relaxation, loving acceptance by others and finding fun however they can. it's not useful to push them into intellectual areas and there is NOT one bit of research that confirms that people already diagnosed with dementia can intellectually recover their losses.

it's much more kind and productive to engage them in creativity (usually with needed guidance, but not always), relationship with people, pets and surroundings that enhance them. to follow the natural flow of creativity and love.

give up the fight to battle their dementia, puleeeze. it's not the task of a caregiver. you can't fight someone else's dementia (but you can make sure they've had the full medical workup to establish it really is dementia).

the only message someone gets from constant pushing, reminding, correcting, demanding more and better is that they are incompetent at being themselves. that they aren't good enough (for you). that they're dumb, crazy or stupid. do we need to do that to them?

and i have to tell you that half of everyone over 60 already has trouble with other people's names. it's not dementia, it's just normal age-related proper-noun memory stuff.

there are so many kind ways to help and, while it's okay to do just what Beth Spencer suggests ("oh, do you mean Jenny?"), really what is the memory correction requirement anyway? does anyone think that it's even half-reasonable to be thinking people with dementia ought to be remembering? let alone that it's our caregiver duty to "make" them.

i've worked two decades (oh my heavens, where did the time go?) with people with dementia and also am an activity director and i've never once seen anyone look happy and proud because they remembered something. but i've seen them shine with pride in making art, laugh joyously relating to a kid or a pet and become radiant when a beloved family member shows they love them exactly as they are.

isn't that what any of us want? to be enough just as we are, even in our imperfections?

what i see in the struggle of family members is that memory issues frighten them, they feel it's somehow their job to "rescue" Mom or Dad from dementia and they're afraid to allow the "faults" of dementia. give it up, guys, and throw some love in there.

dementia is a river. it flows on, following its journey. our boat for riding that river safely is kindness, acceptance, a sense of humor and darn good things to eat. our goal: to be with our beloved (or sometimes not very beloved at all, actually) person in that calm, kind, amusing, well-fed place.

Adjunct prof.rosellfernandez answered...

All persons have a right to self expression based on their personal experience and I wrote about mine. Anyone may agree or disagree or use parts that they feel comfortable with.

My beautiful mother was remanded to a nursing home by a psychiatrist who imho had a touch of dementia himself. He was 75-years old. A few years after he sent my mother there and I took her out, he was still teaching Resident doctors at Trinitas Hospital and I was the go to person to speak to the group about cultural differences.

I also was the Team Leader at United Way in Las Vegas,Nevada 1996 who under president Garth Winkler augmented a request of $5.000.00 dollars to a non-prof dealing with Alzheimer's patients, to $10,000.00 without their asking for the increase and it was granted.

Doctors are highly specialized and unless they are neuro-surgeons and researchers in biochemistry I am NOT interested in anything they have to say.In anthropology we have a sub field called Medical Anthropology.

We do empirical research. We are the progenitors of the Human Genome Project's interpretation on race.

When a person disagrees with an opinion then it would be professional to state the corresponding opinion and one based on la-di-da tip toe through the tulips is in my humble opinion silly.

Alzheimer's is a complicated disease. Many factors are involved. If you so desire to help your family so be it. If you decide to let nature take it's course so be it.

Sometimes someone will read into a comment incorrectly due to their own insufficient education, they may not be really paying attention or not familiar enough with the subject. In any case if one was paying attention they would notice my name is Rosell and not Roselle. Adding the extra e at the end was an assumption.

I loved and love my mother dearly which is why I successfully "rescued" her from a life of a misdiagnosed Alzheimer's patient.

For those who truly have the disease that is far gone, all you can do is love them and leave them be, that is a different response than what I wrote about my experiences with my mother.

As for medical personnel? An Activities Director? are you serious? how does one move from Activities Director to psychologist????????

A fellow caregiver answered...

My answer is this, I usually give a little help to Dad, like a questions, that helps him remember. I always give the answer when he feels frustrated, so as not to hurt his feelings or make him feel bad about his illness...and sometimes I tease him and we laugh about his memory loss...sometimes when I forget things, I remind him that everyone forgets things and when he forgets things that's what i say before i say who? or what? or give him a question that will help him remember, i call it trial and error..because what works on one day will not necessarily work on another.

Sonya by the bay answered...

Thank you, Professor Fernandez, for your answer and comments. Not only do they make sense but I can truly relate to them with my mother.

A fellow caregiver answered...

The advise I am reading about is okay to a point. The problem at our house is that the person with dementia has a very limited comprehension of the English language and is reverting more and more to her native Polish. How do you help someone who has no idea whatsoever as to what is happening? In her case, for the most part, we find ourselves speaking to her in a corrective tone of voice to come even close to having her understand.

Adjunct prof.rosellfernandez answered...

People pay attention to what you read. This is a problem in America. Did I not state that my mother lasted to the end conversant in two languages? maybe my mom was some angel from another planet.

Dotinggranddaughter answered...

When my grandmother was first diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2000, she railed against the diagnosis and spent a lot of time denying there was anything wrong. This phase passed and on came the mistakes with regard to names, places and general (usually short term) recollection, although she could still recite the names of her 6 brothers and sister in order of birth (to my knowledge, she still can!) I and other members of my family corrected her all the time, in the mistaken hope that we could somehow repair her fractured memories. This is not, as we have learned with hindsight productive in the slightest: all you will do is frustrate your mother and yourself. Some people with Alzheimer's stop talking altogether in the advanced stages: my grandmother still talks. To the uninitiated it is nonsense but we, her family know what she is trying to say. She tells us she loves us (even though she calls me a 'good boy') and we love it when she chats to us. Cherish the fact that your mother is talking to you and whatever she calls anyone, just go along with it. Sometimes you'll be able to pick up who she means and other times you might not but to save your sanity I'd say that's the best way forward. @Rosell...I am not going to get into a major discussion about why I disagree with your opinion that Alzheimer's can somehow be 'overcome' but I will say your last post starting 'People pay attention to what you read...' is very aggressive and rude and in my humble opinion, unnecessary. I think if you read it back and check your tone you'll find that you come across as impatient and intolerant. Both of these qualities are about as useful as a chocolate teapot when it comes to helping people with any form of dementia.