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Dementia-related accusations are common but hurtful.

Have you been accused of lying or stealing, even though you were just trying to help?    As a person’s brain is changing, it can start to link facts and details in weird and unusual ways.  This false-memory phenomenon can happen fairly early on, even when a person is only experiencing mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and not yet true dementia.

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In a healthy brain, if an item gets misplaced, we tend to back-track our last steps in hopes of remembering where we put it.  However, when a brain is affected by dementia, forming new memories is troublesome, therefore making the act of retracing one’s steps extremely difficult.  Instead, the brain of a person living with dementia may start to fill the memory gaps with older memories, resulting in stories that don’t quite match reality.

As an example, a person living with dementia may not have any memory of putting the tv remote control into a drawer.  Instead, their brain may fill the memory-gap with one from a few days ago, when they placed that same remote onto the side table.

Always remember that to the person living with dementia, this memory is true.  While their brain is effectively making up a story, the person is honestly unaware of this.  To them, this manufactured memory is as real as any other, making it easy to understand how seemingly disappearing items can lead to distrust.

So if you are a caregiver, what can you do if your loved on with dementia-related accusations such as accusing you of stealing?

Make sure it really is dementia

While false memories are common in dementia, it does not always mean that that is the cause of it.  Cognitive changes can be an early indicator for a lot of things.   It could be that your loved one’s medications are causing them to be a little fuzzy, or that sleep disturbances are affecting their memory.  Or maybe their diabetes is less balanced than it should be.  There are many possibilities so it is crucial to get a doctor’s writeup if this happens recurrently.

Try not to argue or get defensive

What if you remember the details of a recent event with certainty, and someone else told you that it happened differently.  How would that make you feel?

Chances are, you might develop a certain level of mistrust in the person trying to convince you otherwise.  By trying to convince a person living with dementia that their memory is false, you run the risk of reinforcing that you cannot be trusted and might be up to no good.

Let go of the idea of helping them “get it” or showing evidence to prove them wrong; that will likely backfire.  Instead, try to meet them where they are through empathy.

Take a deep breath and try to empathize with them.

So what do you do when someone says you have stolen from them?  This is a sample conversation of a way in which you can respond that is less likely to end in a fight:

You:      Wow! Oh wow. So you think I took the keys?

Them:   Well I can’t find them!

You:      They are missing.  So they obviously aren’t where they usually are and you always keep them on the table by the door.  You’re absolutely right that they are missing

Them:   Well you keep stealing stuff. Every time you go home something’s missing

You:      So it feels like every time I come over something goes missing.  That is not good

Them:   I’m looking for something every time you go.

You:      No wonder you think I’ve done something, because every time I come over, something goes missing and is not where it should be

Them    That’s right.  I’ll have to search you when you leave from now on.

You:      I mean, if things go missing maybe we should check my pockets before I go.  Because that must be frightening and scary.

What do you notice? Can you identify a few of the conversational techniques?  Use the following strategies:

  • Allow yourself to take a breath: Notice the response of “Wow! Oh wow.”  Why? Because it allows you to take a breath and process the situation for a moment.  This gives you a greater chance of responding thoughtfully instead of blurting out a knee-jerk style defensive reaction.
  • Reflect: Notice the pattern of repeating or rephrasing the last few words the accuser said?  That’s because by reflecting the other person’s words, you signal to them that you hear what they are saying.  Not only does that support a person living with dementia cognitively in a conversation, but it is also comforting to know that the other party is truly listening.
  • Empathize with their distress.  Can you see the parts showing empathy?  Why is that helpful?  As we already established, you will not be able to fix the person living with dementia or make them believe that their memories are false.  Instead, by trying to meet them where they are and acknowledging their distress, you are diffusing the you vs. me scenario and helping to bring you both back on the same page.

Get support to Protect your Relationship

You don’t want to be a lone ranger when caring for a person living with dementia.  Do you have someone, maybe another family member, that can assist? It may help to bring them in to give you a little break, or to help calm things between you and the loved one if tensions are high.

You won’t want to permanently damage your relationship with them, so being able to take a step back and let someone else take over for a little while can really help you take a breath and much-needed break. 

Caring for a person with dementia can be challenging, and being accused of theft, lying or even worse can leave you feeling hurt.  Keep in mind that dementia-related accusations are common. While there are no one-size-fits-all solutions in dementia care, letting go of being right and taking things too personally will always help you both.  Take a deep breath, a break if possible, and remember that this moment will pass.

If you are caring for a loved one with dementia, Burzynski Elder Law can make the journey easier.  Just give us a call at 239-434-8557 to schedule a consultation.