Is it Okay to Give Sad News to a Person With Dementia?

2 answers | Last updated: Nov 14, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

Should we tell someone with dementia the sad news that a relative has died?

Expert Answers

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's. A Met Life Foundation Journalists in Aging fellow, she writes extensively about health and caregiving; four of her family members have had dementia.

Yes, the person has the right to know this information, no matter what stage of disease she's in. How she responds and how well she remembers depends on the person and the circumstances.

Don't avoid telling because you fear a strong reaction. The person may cry, grieve, or respond negatively -- all honest and reasonable responses to a significant loss.

If she asks for details, tell her; if she seems to forget, however, let it go and don't issue fresh reminders every day.

Give this information at the person's best time of day in a quiet place that's free of distractions, TV, and other people. Take his or her hand and don't hide your own tears. These nonverbal expressions are powerful communicators to people with cognitive and communication problems.

Do reminisce about the deceased in order to establish the link. (Saying, "I know Mary was your favorite niece" is better than "You remember Mary, don't you?")

Realize that sharing this information benefits you, too. Even nonverbal people with dementia may stroke your hand or murmur words of comfort so you can grieve. They may even be expecting or awaiting such information and can communicate having received it, bringing everyone some peace.

Community Answers

Accordionlady answered...

We had the unfortunate experience of having to tell my 94 year old mother that my older sister passed away at age 64 from advanced breast cancer. She cried for about 5 minutes, got up to go to the bathroom, and, upon returning, had forgotten the conversation. In the 4 months after we told her the news, she experienced a fall, which led to hospitalization and eventual placement in an assisted living facility with hospice and additional nursing services, as she experienced a noticeable decline in cognitive as well as physical functioning. Another older sister and I are there regularly, but she has ceased asking about my deceased sister. I have consistently sensed that she is mourning, but has forgotten the reason why. She does say she's sad when asked how she is, but her communication skills right now are very poor. While I believe we did the right thing in telling her when my sister passed, I suffer from continual guilt that somehow we precipitated this very noticeable decline by telling her.