Repetition & Dementia: Navigating Mum’s Question Loop

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Thanks to Mum’s condition, there are four core questions that she asks quite regularly. We talk about them a lot. While some of the topics are still difficult for both of us to accept, over the years, I’ve come up with some responses for addressing her concerns and then redirecting her attention to other subjects that are less bleak. My matter-of-fact replies may not work for individuals who are further along in the progression of the disease, but I am lucky that Mum still seems to gain even a temporary understanding of my answers and her situation.

  1. “What’s the matter with me?”

“You’ve got a problem with your short-term memory,” I say. Sometimes Mum asks me if dementia is the culprit. I explain that it’s Alzheimer's disease, a type of dementia.

“I hate the D word,” Mum replies. “It makes me sound demented—mad and stupid.”

I tell Mum that she’s none of these things, that she’s still perfectly intelligent, and that everything she says is completely reasonable, which is true.

Sometimes we talk about intelligent, reasonable people who have also been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, like celebrity chef Alison Holst, Dame Iris Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher.

“Margaret Thatcher!” says Mum incredulously. “I’m not too sure about her…”

  1. “What has happened to my house?”

“We sold it. All of us decided together—us kids and you,” I gently remind her. I tell her it was too hard to keep such a big old house in the country going, especially with a huge garden to look after. Then I explain that it’s been more than six years since she moved out. “Amazing, isn't it?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Mum, “it certainly is.”

Sometimes she asks what has happened to her belongings, too. I tell her we went through everything that was precious and made sure someone in the family would look after each item. “You young people can’t imagine what that’s like,” Mum speculates. “It’s a very strange feeling.”

  1. “What can I do to get better?”

“I don't think the memory problem is curable,” I admit. “But I’m pretty sure you can feel a lot better than you do right at this moment.”

Then Mum asks me what’s needed for her to feel better. We talk about staying active and saying yes to everything, like walks, trips out with other residents, knitting projects, doing the crossword and being social. We discuss keeping both her body and mind active to improve her mood. “Right,” agrees Mum. “I really need to lift my game.”

  1. “Do I have a future?”

“What exactly do you mean?” I inquire. Mum knows I’m stalling, though. She tells me she needs hope, so we switch gears and talk about all the things she’s looking forward to, like next Wednesday’s drive with Rachel, the grandchildren coming to stay, Louise visiting from Australia...

“What’s the matter with me?” Mum begins again.

“You have a problem with your short-term memory,” I recite. We talk a bit more and, after a while, I change the subject. “Shall we go out?”

“Can we?” Mum asks eagerly. She never turns me down.

Sarah Jane is a freelance writer/researcher and part-time caregiver for her mother Eleanor* who has dementia and lives at a rest home nearby. Sarah and her mother spend Saturdays enjoying each other’s company, pottering about and having the occasional adventure. Sarah lives in New Zealand where she writes and speaks about dementia-related issues.

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