Caregiver Question | 09/07/23

I know what she’s saying isn’t true but when I say so, we argue.

DEAR CARALLEL: My wife was diagnosed with vascular dementia back in 2020, shortly after she retired from her job as a primary school teacher. She taught for 42 years and next to her family, there was nothing in the world that she loved more.

Life has been different since the diagnosis but it hasn’t been half-bad. I know the road will get bumpier but right now we are concentrating on the good as much as we can.

The biggest problem so far has only come up recently and it drives me crazy. My wife’s begun talking as if she’s still teaching, saying things like “I need to run to Walmart to pick up supplies for the classroom”, “I’ll be home from school at 2:45”, or “I had the most wonderful parent conference with so and so student”. She says those types of things and then keeps going with it.

It breaks my heart because I know how much she loved teaching and how big a part of her identity it was.

But on the other hand it makes me crazy and feels embarrassing at times because what she’s saying isn’t true. And when I correct her and tell her she’s been retired for years, she tells me I’m wrong and gets angry, and then we wind up in an argument.

I don’t want to argue and I certainly don’t want to make her angry. How do I stop her from saying these things and stop the arguments from happening? –David in Elizabethtown, KY

DEAR DAVID: Thanks for your email. I’m glad to hear things have been going ok and that you’re “concentrating on the good” as much as you can. She’s lucky to have you!  

As for your question David, you’re not alone. The scenario you’ve described is common for people living with dementia. Difficult and common.

I’ll take the first part, first. It’s important for you to understand that when your wife is saying these things, she’s not making them up. They’re real to her.

Her brain is changing. The changes can, and likely will, manifest themselves in multiple ways–with the loss of rational thinking skills being one of them. And you’re wife talking as if she’s still teaching is an example of that particular change.

So I don’t recommend that you try and stop her from saying these things. Actually, kind of the opposite.

I think that the best thing you can do in situations like this one is to, as counterintuitive as it may sound, lean into what you’re hearing from her instead of correcting it.

When she’s telling you that she had a great parent teacher conference, that’s actually her reality in that moment. She believes it and is telling you about it. So as long as what she’s saying isn’t putting herself or anyone else in danger, I recommend going with it.

Doing so will validate her feelings and avoid the ‘right vs. wrong’ dynamic that can often lead to an argument. There may be an added benefit as well.

Talking through the things she’s experiencing may help you uncover needs that she has but can’t express.

From leaning into her reality you could, for example, find that she needs an outlet that makes her feel useful, engaged, or connected to something that interests her. Things like giving her an old yearbook to go through and talking about past students, or grabbing some Scholastic magazines to page through could be very rewarding for her.

It won’t be easy at first (for the reasons you described in your email) but you can do it with a concerted effort and a little practice.

And I think you’ll be surprised by the results! 

Before I go, I think you’ll find this video helpful. It’s a 30 minute conversation with dementia care expert, Jill Couch. Jill talks about this very topic at the 22 minute mark with more expertise and nuance than I can. 

Hope this helps and I’ll be thinking of you and your wife David! 

–Jennifer, Carallel Care Advocate

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