When Correcting Loved Ones, Choose Your Battles Wisely

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Over a cup of hot tea, my friend Manda shared the latest news about her mom, who is trying to assist with caring for several relatives with dementia. One interesting comment Manda recounted was that a doctor had recommended that Manda’s mom and others consistently correct one of the relatives who experiences dementia when she says something wrong.

    I respectfully disagree with that doctor’s opinion. I think you pick your battles on when you correct the person and when you let things slide. If the correction is related to the person’s safety, then by all means, correct the person in a kind and caring way. If the comment is about an inconsequential issue, then let the erroneous comment slide.
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    For instance, I got an early morning phone call from the nursing home that my mom was very confused and was refusing to wear her oxygen. Mom got onto the phone and told me that she had heard on the morning news that wearing oxygen was harmful (which was a story that her brain imagined). No matter what I said, she wouldn’t budge on her view and was yelling at the nursing staff when they were talking in the background.

    I decided that this was one issue that needed to be corrected, and I thought I could handle this situation better in person. So I jumped into my car and headed toward the nursing home. By the time I got there, I had figured out an approach to discuss this matter with Mom. I could tell that Mom was having a very bad morning – her hair was disheveled and her eyes had a glassy look to them. If the conversation didn’t go well, we were going to have a catastrophic reaction, as described by the book, “The 36-Hour Day.” The authors described how people with limited thinking capacity can overreact violently. In Mom’s case, a catastrophic reaction might lead to another emergency room visit because of the added strain to her already weak lungs.
    So I wheeled Mom to a quiet area, held her hand, and calmly proceeded to talk to her about wearing her oxygen. I have to admit that I used a big white lie to correct Mom on this issue by invoking her favorite doctor’s name because he was the only authority figure that she trusted on health issues. I told Mom that I had called Dr. Deaton on my way to see her and actually spoken with him about Mom’s concerns. I recounted that Dr. Deaton had heard about the report and was very concerned because the research was faulty. I told Mom that Dr. Deaton had a number of patients he had to attend to that morning, but that he asked me to relay to her that he wanted Mom to wear her oxygen at all times and not to worry about the report that she had heard. I helped Mom put the oxygen back on, and then wheeled her back to her room so she could watch me write “Dr. Deaton says to wear your oxygen at all times” on the message board by her bed.

    This particular misconception was an important one to correct. However, most things are not that important. For instance, Mom thought I was her granddaughter at one point. She thinks she’s in her 60s (as opposed to her true age, which is in her 80s). These misconceptions, as far as I’m concerned, are not worth a fight.
  • Which leads me to my theory about working with those with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. I think that these people can easily end up with a habit of reacting in a rage. For instance, my father always corrected my mom on numerous issues prior to her diagnosis. I can’t tell you the number of pitched fights they got into. When Mom came to live with me, she and I got into a couple of verbal nuclear wars (and we used to never fight). I think Mom’s injured brain got into a habit of triggering this rage, and that she doesn’t have the mental ability to get out of this habit. So when she is corrected on an issue, Mom’s anger explodes.
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    I’ve learned to determine a diplomatic way to address issues when I need to correct her so that Mom doesn’t explode and make things worse for herself. Sometimes that means a white lie and often times it means holding her hand and explaining in a non-confrontational way that she’s wrong. Most importantly, it means picking my battles, and basing those decisions only on her health issues.

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Published On: July 13, 2006