How should I tell my mom's friends that she has Alzheimer's?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother's doctor recently confirmed that the problems we've been noticing are symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. What's the best way for me to tell Mom's friends that she has Alzheimer's?

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.

There's no single answer to the question of how to inform other people that your parent has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's because it depends so much on the person with the disease.

Ideally, in the early stages, your mother should be left to decide how and when to tell other people. Some patients are very ashamed and don't want anyone to know. Others don't believe they have memory loss because they can't remember it being a problem. This puts their family in a difficult position, but generally it's best to honor their wishes for a while.

Meanwhile, if your mother is reluctant to divulge her diagnosis, try to help her to not feel ashamed and to understand that this is a disease just like any other. Emphasize that by sharing information about her condition, she's better able to keep support she may otherwise lose.

In later stages, when your parent can't make these decisions anymore, give others information they need without violating your parent's right to privacy. You could simply say, "My mother has an illness that affects her ability to speak and to remember information, but she still really enjoys and needs social contact." Chances are, your mother's good friends have already noticed her memory lapses and won't be entirely surprised.

The most important thing you can do is to encourage your mother's friends to stay in touch. Even a 15-minute visit once a month can lift your mother's spirits.

I often suggest that friends visit in pairs. It can be easier to communicate with someone who has Alzheimer's when there are three of you to keep the conversation going instead of just two.