How can I talk with my dad about his memory loss?

4 answers | Last updated: Sep 29, 2016
Cyndria asked...

How can I talk with my dad about his memory problems? My step-mother was recently hospitalized and is now in a rehab. for an indefinate amount of time. So, Dad, age 85 is alone in the house. He cannot drive, but believes he can. He is very forgetful about many things, some of which can be dangerous. My sisters and I are in the beginning stages of providing his care, such as putting up his meds in a safe container, making sure he takes all his meds(we sometimes find some on the floor), making sure he eats and drinks enough. His stress level has increased 100% since his wife's fall and subsequent nursing home care. There is so much more, but for right can I speak about his memory loss issues with his providers, without offending him, making him feel worse than he already feels and to help him feel more accepting of the help my sister and I are giving to him? Please help. Thanks

Expert Answers

Jytte Lokvig, PhD, coaches families and professional caregivers and designs life-enrichment programs and activities for patients with Alzheimer's disease and related dementia. Her workshops and seminars help caregivers and families create a healthy environment based on dignity and humor. She is the author of Alzheimer's A to Z: A Quick-Reference Guide.

It's understandable that you want to talk to your father about his memory problems, but right now his safety is by far your more pressing issue. I urge you not to talk to him directly about dementia until this crisis period has passed. It would only add to his stress and may make him even more resistant to accepting the help he needs from you and your sister.

From your description your father is not safe living by himself. You have a few options for getting him the necessary care while your stepmother is recuperating. He could stay with you or your sister. You could bring in a professional to alternate with you and your sister at his home. He needs someone to spend time with him during the day, not just to make sure he eats right and takes his medications, but equally as importantly to keep him company. He's used to having your stepmother around and being alone suddenly must be very traumatic to him. This type of stress often causes a dramatic decline in cognition and increased confusion, so as much as possible you want to maintain "normalcy" for your dad. Thus it's premature to raise the issue of his memory loss.

You say that dad's no longer a safe driver. Giving up driving to most of us feels like giving up our independence. This is another issue you ought to revisit after your immediate crisis. In the meantime you can remove the car and tell him it's in the shop with some kind of tricky electrical problem that makes it unsafe to drive "“ and you don't know how long it will take to diagnose and fix the problem. He'll probably ask about the car repeatedly and it's important that you and your sister stick to the same story.

You and your sister need to be his best allies and let everyone else be the bearers of bad news. When your crisis has passed and your dad's life has stabilized, you can revisit the issue of his memory loss. Don't mention it to him directly, but take him to a doctor with a geriatric specialty for a "physical", which would include cognitive testing. Let the doctor talk to him about the memory issues.

Community Answers

Shannonm answered...

Thanks Jytte for the thoughtful answer. This is no doubt a tough situation many families face and it is good that you are thinking through how to approach it. I will also mention that an experienced geriatric care manager can be a good resource. At Aging Wisely (, we do a lot of caregiver consultations where we talk through how to approach a situation with a family. Some families also have us involved in the discussion and playing a role as Jytte mentioned of protecting the family relationship by kind of leading the changes and helping navigate things.

One other suggestion I will mention about talking to providers: with doctors esp. sending a fax ahead of time can be both useful and protective of your father's dignity. You can send the fax outlining what you've seen, concerns and what you feel the doctor needs to address. You aren't really even asking for info. so this can really be done regardless of things like privacy--you are just giving input. But, hopefully your Dad has been willing to have you guys involved and will permit the doctor to speak with you, go along on appointments, etc. And, hopefully he has good docs that you can work with and know how to judiciously handle the situation and conversations.

Has your father completed a healthcare surrogate/POA and other advance directives?

Jytte lokvig answered...

Thank you, Shannon, for your additional recommendations. The FAX is an excellent idea before EVERY doctor's visit.

Amour answered...

All this advise is well and good. For my 88yr old mother who has moderate dementia and failing strength and difficulty walking it doesn't work,?! She has been told by different professionals, family, friends not to live alone, use a walker etc.. She refuses to accept her situation, doesn't listen and will do it her way because the rest of us don't know anything. It is all her pride. I don't know what to do any more--nothing works! I have resolved myself just to wait for the imminent phone call that something bad has happened. Yes, all the legal documents are in place but she is not bad enough yet to implimant them. I'm between a rock and a hard place. I guess I'm giving up and just waiting unfortunately but you cannot help someone who doesn't want to help themselves. This has been going on for 2 yrs and I'm tired. I hope when and if something has to happen that it will take care her because that she wants.