Outrageous Things People With Dementia Say and How to Respond

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I recall sitting with my neighbor, Joe, as we waited at the local clinic for some medical tests he required. Joe looked up, saw a man pulling an oxygen tank behind him, and yelled excitedly, “Look! He’s got a golf cart!” Since Joe had loved playing golf and his sight was poor, he saw what he “knew.” A golf cart. The man walking by was embarrassed. I simply smiled at him and talked to Joe about his years playing golf.

This incident was a little embarrassing, but not nearly as embarrassing as other incidences that I’ve experienced. Several of my loved ones lived in a nursing home just blocks from my own house, I visited them daily. These visits presented me with a valuable window into dementia behavior, some of which I’d have trouble describing in a polite manner. Below are some incidences that can be published without censorship:

Scenario 1

Person with Dementia: (upon seeing their new agency caregiver) “She’s a foreigner!” (Or worse yet, a racial slur.)

Response: “Yes, isn’t it exciting to see so many people working together to help each other. It’s fun to be exposed to more cultures.” If more grumbling or even outrage is shown, such as the refusal to let the agency caregiver help, we need to remember that likely this isn’t the first time the nursing home employee or in-home agency caregiver has been insulted in this way. Most of them learn to handle it with grace. When I had something similar happen with an elderly friend of mine, I just apologized to the employee and then stayed around and chatted with them both for while. My elderly friend eventually grew more comfortable with the new caregiver and allowed her to do her job. The happy ending was that this elder and the caregiver eventually became good friends.

Explanation: Many of our elders grew up in much less diverse communities than we have today. In the Great Plains area where I grew up, most people were of Scandinavian or Germanic extraction, so it was a “white bread” society. Oh, we had some people of color as professors at our colleges, but many elders grew up rarely seeing anyone who wasn’t light skinned. Most of these people aren’t racists. They simply haven’t been used to interacting with people of color.

Now, in our racially diverse nation, many caregivers working for in-home care agencies, assisted living facilities and nursing homes are Native American, Hispanic, African-American, and new immigrants from any number of countries. Many have heavily accented language. I was fortunate in that both of my parents greeted these caregivers with open arms, enjoying the variety in their lives. However, I saw and heard many elders using racial references that were, to say the least, disrespectful. Again, it doesn’t necessarily mean the people are racist, though, of course, some are. Many, however, simply have lost their short-term memory and whatever inhibitions they may have once had. So, when they see someone of another race, they blurt out labels that they heard as youths, thus embarrassing everyone involved.

Scenario 2

Person with Dementia: “That woman is throwing away food! That’s a sin! Look at her dumping her dinner in the garbage!”

Response: “That woman is sick and can’t eat very much. Everyone here has as much food as they want.”

Explanation: Many of our elders grew up during the depression. Some of their parents came to this country prior to that when people were starving because of famine in the “old country.” They feel in their core that any waste of food is sinful. The memories that they retain are often from decades back, so they panic if they see that food is being wasted. They may actually fear starvation.

Scenario 3

Person with Dementia: (generally a man) pinches a woman or otherwise acts out sexually: “Nice butt!”

Response: Calmly say, “That’s inappropriate, Dad,” or something to indicate that the action is not acceptable. It won’t help to scold, however. Apologize to the person affected and then if possible move your dad away. Explain to the person that dad has Alzheimer’s and his actions are the result of the disease. If you can’t defuse the situation by moving him away, just allow the affected person to handle it. If it happens to a professional caregiver, they are trained to handle these challenging Alzheimer's situations.

Explanation: Stay calm and realize that this behavior is caused by the disease. Dementia has stripped your dad of his inhibitions and he really can’t help it. Try not to over react from embarrassment.

When these and other uncomfortable situations occur, we are embarrassed for ourselves and for the person our elder once was. Learning that we aren’t alone in enduring this public embarrassment helps, so I’d suggest talking with other caregivers, either in person or online, for support. When we share our stories with people who understand, our pain and embarrassment doesn’t take on a life of its own. We can gain perspective if we communicate with other caregivers who’ve been through similar situations.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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15 Comments

After a very long frustrating day of my wife of 42 years calling me by my name and when I asked what she wanted she told me I was wrong person, She wanted the the other guy. Well this went on all day and by bed time I was thinking have I bitten off more then I can handle.. I had gotten her settled in bed and I went out of the bedroom to turn off the rest of the house lights. I went back to the bedroom to try and get some sleep. As I was undressing myself and my pants fell to the floor my wife with a big smile said "There you are I have been looking for you all day". I guess I should have taken my pants off early! On another occasion while she was in rehab I was a little late getting there to see her. She ask me were I had been. I explained all the things I had done. She reached out and took my hand and told me
"You need to retire from your retirement and slow down" Trust me not everything has been great by a long shot but when something makes you laugh, laugh as hard as you can.


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My father also had Alzheimer's and we found what we thought was a very nice Nursing Home for him with a staff who was used to dealing with that condition. One day my Dad (who was normally very shy) grabbed on the nurse's inappropriately. They called us and told us we needed to find someplace else for him to live because that made the Nurse very "uncomfortable". Can you believe that? A nurse in an Alzheimer's unit was made "uncomfortable"!! After trying to talk to the Administrator and the staff, we decided to move Dad and found a place that he liked where they understood that he could not help what he did and that it was all due to his Alzheimer's. UNBELIEVABLE!!
There is a thread on this sight....
What is the funniest thing your aging parent has said to you lately? Well the post on that discussion are from caregivers that have gotten past the
"what now, not again,why me, how do I respond to this or that?... stage" as care givers and moved onto the
"what is going to come out of the mouth today?,How many people am I going to pretend to be today?, Laughing and smiling works better than anger and crying!.Stage"
I saw a woman say to the Activities professional (Great job for him he's got the right attitude) at Mom's NH ... She said "get out of the way you're an IDIOT!!"
He look at me as I tried to stop myself from laughing and said "see the abuse I go through" with a big smile on his face then... said to her "you're right I am an idiot" "but your so beautiful" she smiled and said "that's right, at least YOU can SEE..., now get out of my way handsome"
he was blocking her view of the movie because he was fixing the sound.
With his response he turned a bitter woman into a more pleasant person.