Talking with a Dementia Patient Can be Frustrating


Are you familiar with the "Who's on first?" dialogue between Abbott and Costello?

That's the kind of conversation I have when I try to talk to Charlie. We go round and round with me making a point and Charlie responding with a totally confusing reply to my statement. It gets so bad that I finally just clam up, turn on the computer or pick up the book I am reading and ignore him for the next hour or so.

I know he is hurt because I never talk to him, but it is driving me nuts. The only things we can discuss are the weather, what's for dinner, and the birds eating at the feeder outside our window. At times, even those relatively simple topics can result in heated discussions with nothing making any sense.

Example: "The crows are eating the bread I threw out," I said. Charlie responded, "Those turkeys look small, they must be starving this winter."

I understand that an absence of communication between a patient and his or her caregiver can perpetuate the depression with which many dementia patients contend. But how do we, as caregivers, manage to keep up a conversation without losing our own sanity?

I am learning to use pictures in lieu of verbal discussions with Charlie. He likes to look back at old photographs and scrapbooks. There is always something that will trigger a brief discussion. His recollections may not be perfect, but when I realize that his memory on a certain topic or event is flawed I just agree with him or gently change the subject, turn the page or go on to the next photo.

Charlie loves to have company stop by. He usually just sits and does not join in the conversation, partly because he doesn't fully comprehend what is being said around him or he is afraid of entering into the discussion for fear of exposing his lack of acuity.

At times he will bring up a topic for discussion, usually something about his Air Force service or his hunting and fishing experiences. These seem to be the two topics with which he still remains somewhat comfortable. Of course, we have all heard the same old stories over and over but everyone kindly reacts as though they were hearing the tale for the first time.

Charlie enjoys listening to his collection of CD's. His music preferences range from classical to country. Whenever we are relaxing in a room together we will turn on the music and hum along or tap our toes. So, even though we are not talking we are enjoying the time together in a less stressful manner, and neither one of us feels isolated as long as we have the music binding us together.

Charlie may have lost some of his conversational skills, but he never forgets to play the perfect host. The minute someone comes through the door, he wants to know what he can get for him or her to drink. He likes nothing better than to have someone join him for a bit of cheer. I know a glass of wine relaxes him and makes him feel more at ease in social situations; sometimes that is good, sometimes not so good. Most family members have learned that it is best to kindly decline his offer.

But then the company leaves or the music is turned off, and Charlie picks up his calendar. And once again, we are back on first!

Marlis describes herself as a “Gramma who loves technology and has a lot to say.” She blogs about whatever catches her interest: food, books, family and more. For, she writes about the issues facing the elderly and her experiences caring for her husband, Charlie, who suffers from dementia.

View full profile

You May Also Like

Free AgingCare Guides

Get the latest care advice and articles delivered to your inbox!


I understand totally. My husband is now beginning to reach this stage. He loves where we live on a rural golf course in farm country. Sits on our honeysuckle covered deck in the summer, watching golfers and birds. We walk, but now it's getting hard to motivate him. A month ago we were in a frantic merry go round in the afternoons. We would go to town just to get out of these four or six walls, do lunch, maybe an errand, do a little local bar hopping. (I have all the bartenders serving O Douls, he thinks it's beer.) but with the nice weather, he is staying home, can't fool him with O Douls, but this last year, I have his whiskey watered down with food coloring, so I hide most of the beer in the crisper, and pull a few out ea. day. As you are aware, they don't realize that they just had a beer or drink 20 min. Ago. He is napping more. This last week or so, as he mows the lawn occasionally, but the yard is really looking bad, we need bushes trimmed and the yard hasn't been edged in two years , was trimming with the weed-wacker. But not motivated. Well he doesn't retain his thoughts and it's hard for him. We (almost)got into an angry spiel about the cost of getting the yard cleaned up. The Gardner called had to change the day, Al asked what this was going to cost him. Went on and on about where was the money coming from and he gets more and more worked up. I just said it's canceled. This is the second time, and I see a pattern in his rant. I just turned on his music...not looking forward to telling him about his license being suspended. He hasn't been able to remember where he's driving to or where he's been for quite a while now. I've been navigating. He is a professional truck driver, so that's why he's been able to fake it for a while. Got our second car out of our garage, last week, in the shop! Sold it gonna face that argument soon. So fellow spouses and caregivers.. I totally relate...when you have to cajol and plead to get them to bathe. Or lie to get things taken care of. And they lose memories, and their stories change, and you answer questions over and over and over. Just don't be so hard on yourself. Yesterday, my husband started tearing down my wisteria from the railing, (I've been looking so forward to seeing it bloom,) well I did lose it, then when he was so childlike in his remorse, friends I was ashamed of problem is soon I'm going to have to hire somebody to help. My daughter came to help me, but she's avoiding and in denial. Children are not always the answer. So I get get out maybe once a week. When you are told, you should be used to to it by now,,, bye bye daughter. Hang in there! Fellow caregivers!!!
Visitors (short-term company for your dementia patient) have lots of suggestions for dealing with this (and the repetitive questions), and sometimes don't understand why it is so frustrating. "Just go along with it!" "Have fun with it!" "Start answering that same question differently every time!" As if we haven't tried such things. Deflection only works so well, lasts so long. So exhausting and mundane having unintelligible conversations day in and day out. And so sad, knowing there is a once-vibrant person in there somewhere, lost in a world of confusion with little to no frame/time reference. I HAVE to dwell on that sad part, to constantly remind myself of it, in hopes of having compassion overrule my frustration and the emptiness of looping and nonsensical conversations. And as JoAnn29 mentioned, being asked when to stand, sit, go, which direction to turn... (I don't do well with the needy, either - particularly when coupled with equal parts of stubborn resistance to needs being met!) Bookmarked the article you noted Detuchka. Will read shortly. Thanks, Marlis, and all who commented. God bless all dementia caregivers!!
I also wonder if living in mom's world will have an effect on my sanity. I know I should talk with her more but having a conversation is hard when neither one of us knows what the other is talking about. It amazes me some times when I realize I have just had a conversation that was total fantasy. I don't know which of us has the most active or mom!