Dad is getting upset with Mom, who has memory loss. How can we help him not get upset?

2 answers | Last updated: Oct 14, 2016
Carolhoov asked...

Mom, who is 92, has been diagnosed with age-related memory loss, and it is getting worse every day. She is on Aricept, but it doesn't seem to be doing any good. Dad, who is 90, is still mentally sharp; his main physical complaint is hearing loss. They have been married for 66 years and are still living independently. Mom has always done everything for Dad--cooking, cleaning, finances. My husband, brother and I have taken over much of that, and Dad does help with the vacuuming. My problem is Dad. Though I know that he loves her, he gets angry with Mom when she repeats herself, or can no longer remember things or do things that she used to. He doesn't seem to know that now, more than ever, Mom needs understanding and compassion. Mom has not believed (until recently) that her memory is all that bad. She realizes now that it IS bad, but I think it's because Dad yells at her. Dad is probably reacting that way because he is scared of Mom's deteriorating condition. How can I tell him he needs to be gentle with her, without my adding to his stress?

Expert Answers

Merrily Orsini, MSSW, was a pioneer in the business of providing geriatric care managed in-home care. She currently serves on the board of the National Association for Home Care and Hospice and is Chair of the Private Duty Homecare Association. She holds a master's degree in social work and is a nationally known writer and speaker on aging, elder issues, and in-home care.

First, there is no "age-related memory loss". Loss of memory has an associated cause, and finding that cause is essential. Please do not use the physician who made the pronouncement of "age-related" rather seek out a geriatrician or a geriatrics center that does comprehensive evaluations. Sometimes memory loss has an underlying cause, like nutrition, or medication, lack of physical activity or depression.

Second, with a spousal upset at spouse's memory loss such as your father is experiencing, the key is understanding. And I mean understanding of the disease that is present causing the memory loss. So, number two is based on number one, and I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to understand the disease first, and to see if it IS a disease or something that can be cured through change in diet, change in medications, exercise, or addition of medications.

Having said that, if it IS an irreversible cognitive decline, then understanding the disease is key. There are several great resources here on, and one I would recommend first is and three books that are recommended. The classic book on understanding how to communicate with someone with a dementia is by two Johns Hopkins affiliates, Mace and Rabins, titled "The 36 Hour Day". It is now in its 5th edition, and has more than one would ever want to know, but is a good baseline for understanding, and I recommend it for the entire family so you, your husband and brother will also be educated about the disease and how to handle your caregiving.

If it is Alzheimer's or a progressive dementia, then your mother will eventually need more care, and either from caregivers who know how to deal with a dementia, or in a setting that specialized in care for the cognitively impaired. And your father may need some additional care as well, or even some respite now from the situation. This is a perfect time to call upon a geriatric care manager who can assess, recommend a good geriatrician, and help with planning out the care from now on.

Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...

Thank you for your quick response. Mom's HMO, Kaiser, made the diagnosis of age-related memory loss. I do tend to believe them, as I recently saw an episode on Charlie Rose public television, and he had a panel of experts who discussed this very thing. There apparently are two distinct areas of the brain that display memory loss--one is the Alzheimer's area, and another they called "age-related". I've recorded and kept that program, so I'll review it again to ensure I'm understanding it correctly. I'll also see if Kaiser could give me a better explanation, and at the same time will try to find a geriatric center that could give me a second opinion. Thank you again for helping us in our dilemma.