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Stop treating your aging parent like a child

Treating a Parent with Dementia Like a Child? Tips to Break the Cycle

You often will hear it in doctors’ offices, stores, restaurants and even at home – younger people treating aging, disabled adults like children. This is especially prevalent in communications with adults who struggle with cognitive loss, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Even those adult children who vowed they never would, often find themselves resorting to “child speak” with a mom or dad with dementia.

If this sounds like you, first know that you’re not alone. It is a common issue expressed by caregivers of aging parents, especially those with dementia. Why does it happen? It begins as a parent’s behavior becomes less focused and speech becomes more halting and harder to understand. The parent may also have mobility impairments, which adds an additional layer of challenges. And, if they struggle with dementia, they may exhibit spells of erratic behavior. Collectively, these changes can mimic attributes of early childhood (learning to speak, walk, occasional tantrums, etc.). And, while you realize that mom is an adult, your patience may begin to wear thin. That’s when so many adult children resort to interacting in ways that treat the adult like a child.

Does it have to be that way? Not at all. Many adult children caregivers who find themselves slipping into “child speak” and other habits are able to adjust and move on. But for those of you struggling with the transition, here are some thoughts to help you resist these negative patterns and keep the adult-to-adult connection with your cognitively impaired loved one.

  • Slow down. While yours may be a fast-paced lifestyle, when you are with your elderly parent, slow down! By slowing down the overall pace of your interactions you will find it easier for your parent to focus and respond to you and changes in the environment. When possible, move more slowly, talk more slowly and make transitions more slowly. It will help steady your own nerves as well.
  • Tone is everything. It’s time to discover your new voice. It needs to be slower, calmer and lower in tone. Moreover, it needs to be respectful. When you find yourself resorting to talking down to your parent, stop, realign your voice and begin again. With practice you will start to notice the difference. Your parent will as well.
  • Words matter. Express empathy. Instead of saying “Now mom, we need to get you ready for the doctor visit. You need to put your skirt on and your good shoes,” try “Mom I know this isn’t easy getting ready to go to the doctor. I’m here to help. Let’s do this together.” Starting with an empathetic statement is a reminder to you and to her that she is an adult, challenged with doing something that used to be routine, not a child learning something for the first time.
  • Share mom’s history with her regularly. Take some time to sit and look through an old photo album or talk about things your mom used to do. Instead of saying “Don’t you remember when you used to…” try “I remember, mom, when you used to..” Remember, this is not a test with questions, it’s a recollection you share with your parent. It doesn’t matter if he or she doesn’t recall it, because it is a reminder to you that your parent is an adult who raised you as a child.  

Finally, be sure to reach out for help. Get in touch with your local memory care community. Some will offer “dementia virtual reality” experiences that help you better understand what your loved one is going through and why their lives have become so challenging. Many have regular dementia support groups where you can share your feelings and frustrations with other adult children who have similar experiences.

When a parent acts in ways that mimic an angry or wayward child, it’s easy to start treating them as such. It is up to you to break this cycle and re-calibrate your reactions in a positive way that acknowledges your loved one’s challenges yet continues to treat them as the adult they were and remain.