Breaking the news to someone with Alzheimer’s that their spouse has died

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Of all the things families have to deal with when their loved one has Alzheimer’s, explaining that a loved one has died is one of the most heartbreaking and difficult issues to handle. Guest author Michael Longsdon of ElderFreedom offers tips on how to approach this sensitive subject, and how caregiver should prepare for the moment.

How do you tell your loved one with Alzheimer’s that their spouse has died? It’s a tricky proposition – one that people with aging parents dread. It would be a lie to say it’s a easy process, but it can be manageable. Here are some tips.

Pick the right time

This is a judgment call, but some common strategies for having this tough conversation include making sure the person is in a safe, comfortable environment, trying to pick a more lucid moment to break the news, and trying to have only one person deal with the news as to minimize possible confusion.

Be straightforward

Every surviving spouse has the right to know that their loved one has died – no matter their condition. When having the first conversation (of many, to be sure), you must be as straightforward as possible. Speak slowly and calmly and tell them that their spouse has died. Avoid euphemistic phrases like they passed away or they are going to be gone for a while. You don’t have to get into the details, and you should stick to the basics if you can. If they ask for details, however, you should be honest.

Offer to go through the deceased’s belongings with them

The practical reason for doing this is that following any death, the surviving loved ones must go through the deceased’s belongings and decide what to keep, what to pass on to loved ones, and what to throw away. For someone with Alzheimer’s this process is vital because you don’t want them to have to do it themselves, plus you don’t want them to have to stumble upon troves of their dead spouse’s belongings, triggering confusion or agitation.

But it can be even more important in the immediate aftermath of the death. Going through old clothes, photos, jewelry, and keepsakes can help ground your loved one to the situation, and in some cases this methodical sorting through possessions can be cathartic. Your loved one may want to hold onto a particular item, which may give them comfort. Let them.

Don’t mistake forgetfulness for denial

“When dementia is severe, people aren’t just in denial. They truly have not been able to form the new memory that lets them remember their beloved family member or friend has died,” says caregiver Carol Bursack.

You’re going to be faced with times that your loved one simply doesn’t seem to be on the right page about their deceased spouse. They may think they’ve gone on a trip, or that they’ve left them. They may ask where they are, even hours after you told them about the death. Don’t think of this as denial. It’s simply a product of their Alzheimer’s. When it comes to what you do in these situations, it’s up to you. Judge the situation and determine whether it’s better to reinform them, or whether you should “punt” and either work around the truth or redirect them with something else. There’s really no right answer here –  it all depends on your loved one’s state at that very moment. It can change from day to day.

You may have to “break the news” to your loved one with Alzheimer’s more than once. How you choose to handle these situations is up to you. Most professionals believe, however, that the initial conversation is a must – both for ethical and practical reasons. Try to find a good time to have the conversation, remember to be straightforward, respect their reaction, and never try to limit their grief.

 

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2 Comments

Filed under Awareness & Activism

2 responses to “Breaking the news to someone with Alzheimer’s that their spouse has died

  1. This is so hard with my nursing job. One man used to wake up every day and ask where his wife went. It was heartbreaking.

    • Oh, that is so sad. I’ve known adult children who have to break the news to one parent that the other parent has died repeatedly. Can’t begin to imagine how tough that is.

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