Understanding Why Alzheimer’s Causes Her to Call Out for a Parent
Have you ever heard someone with dementia call out, “Mother? Mother, where are you?” Or, “Dad, come here!” Sometimes, this desire for a mother or father might simply be expressed as, “I want my mom. Help me!” Perhaps this describes your loved one, and you’re not sure how best to respond. Sometimes family caregivers feel sad or even frustrated when this happens, and these reactions are normal, especially when that desired parent may have passed away many years ago. It can be helpful to arm yourself with understanding about why this happens and have a couple of responses prepared to try to help your loved one.
One of the symptoms of dementia is disorientation to time, place or person. Couple that with memory loss, and the potential for confusion skyrockets. This confusion can prevent your loved one from remembering that she’s older and that her mother and father already passed away 20 years ago. She can’t do the math if you were to ask her to think about her age of 90 and then to calculate how old her mother would be right now if she were still alive. These logical thought processes are impaired by dementia, so asking her to think sequentially or to remember that her parents have already died won’t be helpful. Additionally, memory loss in dementia often is such that the current memories fade first. As dementia progresses, that fading continues to erase the years in a backwards manner so that it’s the younger time in her life that is left in her memory.
Often, the person living with dementia calls out for her mom or dad because she’s looking for the presence of a parent to provide security and reassurance in an unfamiliar setting. She may be feeling worried and anxious, which would actually be a normal reaction for ll of us if everything and everyone is unfamiliar, and we’re not sure where we are. Think of the young child who wanders off in the store. All of the sudden, she looks around and begins to cry because she’s lost and doesn’t know where her mom is. While we don’t ever want to treat a respected older adult like a child, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that this lost feeling is similar to what they’re experiencing.
What’s a good way to answer when a loved one asks for her mom or dad? What can you say to reassure and comfort the person? Try these three approaches.
Validate the person’s feelings by spending time with her, asking questions and reassuring her. You can try something like this: “Hi Fran, are you looking for someone? I heard you asking for some help. Can I help you with something?”
If she asks where her mother is, you can truthfully say, “I’m not sure. I haven’t seen her lately.” If Fran continues to ask for her mother, you can try these questions: “What did your mom look like? Was she a good cook? What was her best meal? Could she sing well? Did she have a job outside of the home? What color was her hair? What did she teach you? What did you love about her?”
Sometimes, when you use validation, the person may be comforted just by talking about her mother or father that she misses. Those memories may be enough to calm and reassure the person. At other times, validation can even help a person come to the point in the conversation where they say, “You know, I really miss my mom. She died several years ago.”
Try meeting the need of your loved one by reassuring her in a different way. Help her focus on something different and enjoyable. Try this: “Mom, can we go for a walk together? I just really need to stretch my legs and I’m sure you do, too. Let’s get some fresh air. I always feel better after breathing deeply outside, don’t you? Can I get you a cookie to enjoy outside, too? Mom, I’m so thankful that I can spend time with you.”
Sometimes, music therapy is a powerful tool to distract and comfort. You can try turning on her favorite songs and singing them with her. The familiarity of an old song may help provide that comfort that she is seeking.
Occasionally, a situation develops where it’s just better to be more direct and honest, even when it can hurt. For example, if your loved one is worried about her mother or father and believes that they’re sick or in danger, it might be helpful, if they persist in their worries, to tell them that the person has already passed away so that they aren’t anxious anymore about them.
In general, this approach is not recommended because it can potentially trigger the person to begin the grieving process all over again for the loss of the parent. However, in my clinical experience, there have been times where it actually provided relief for the person with dementia because they could set their anxieties aside.