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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published October 29 2011

Bradley Bursack: Mom with dementia wants to see young sons

Dear Carol: Mom is 93 with mid-level dementia. She is constantly asking for her sons, but when she sees them she says they are not her sons and she gets upset. She thinks something has happened to her children. Needless to say this frustrates us all, mostly because we hate to see her so confused and in emotional pain. How on earth do people handle this? – Angel

Dear Angel: As hard as your mother’s confusion and anger are to accept, her behavior is very normal for people in certain stages of Alzheimer’s.

As you’ve seen, explaining repeatedly that these grown men are her sons doesn’t help. Arguing just upsets people with AD because in their minds they are right. And they are – they are just mentally in the wrong moment of their history. Being told they are wrong only makes them more confused and anxious. Therefore, it’s likely time for some “therapeutic fibbing.”

Don’t think of it as lying. You are telling her “fibs” out of compassion, not out of malice. You are being kind by not insisting she join you in your reality when she is unable to do so.

Specifically, your mom has likely regressed cognitively to a time when her sons were young. Her real home, in her mind, may be the home where she raised her children. She remembers the boys as small children, so it may help to distract her by showing her photographs of them when they were young.

If she keeps insisting on seeing them, you can explain that they are gone now, but that they are fine. You could try saying that they are out with “Aunt so and so,” but will be back later, or with some friends whose names she may recognize from the past.

In this way, you aren’t arguing with her. You are calming her by agreeing with her, and then you may be able to distract her by asking for her help in the kitchen, turning on a DVD she enjoys or looking at old photos with her.

Something else you may need to prepare for is that she may soon think one of her grown sons is her husband, especially if that son resembles her husband when her husband was young. It’s sad, but it’s part of the process for many people with Alzheimer’s.

Please contact the Alzheimer’s Association or go online to www.alz.org for more support. What you are going through is normal for the disease process. Knowing others are going through the same thing can help. The Alzheimer’s Association is a good place to start.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.