Don’t Correct! Redirect!

September 28, 2011

by Ellen Woodward Potts
Co-Author, A Pocket Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver

There are several universal truths about people with dementia.  One of these is that they will constantly get their facts wrong.  The knee-jerk reaction is to correct the person.  “No, Mama, Daddy’s been dead for 5 years,” or “You can’t be hungry!  You just had your breakfast!” or “You KNOW we’re going to the doctor today!  I told you less than 5 minutes ago.”

Here is another universal truth of dealing with people with dementia:  They cannot come back into your world, so you have to meet them in theirs.   There are various kinds of dementia, the most common form being Alzheimer’s disease.  As part of the disease process, people with Alzheimer’s disease can remember things that happened long ago, but not what happened today.  Think of it this way:  If the person’s brain is like a computer, all the things they did long ago are stored on the hard drive and during the early and middle stages of the disease, they can remember these things, like retrieving a document you saved a year ago.  However, the first part of the brain to be damaged is the part that saves current memories.  It’s like the “save” button on the computer doesn’t work anymore.  Therefore, it make sense that your mother with Alzheimer’s disease can remember every detail of her prom dress from 60 years ago, but not what she had for breakfast this morning.

If you understand this, you realize that there is no point in trying to correct the person.  Instead, redirect them.

“No, Mama, Daddy’s been dead for 5 years.”  People with dementia may not remember that family or friends have passed away.  If you remind them of the person’s death, it is like a new death to them with all the grief you would expect.  Instead, say something like this: “Can you tell me the story of when you and Daddy met? It’s so romantic!”

“You can’t be hungry!  You just had your breakfast!” People with dementia often forget they have eaten a meal as soon as they leave the table.  My grandfather went so far as to accuse my grandmother of starving him!  If your loved one tells you he’s hungry between meals, offer him cut fruit or raw vegetables.  These are low in calories and high in fiber and nutrition.  OR you can distract the person, “Yes, we’ll eat in a few minutes.  Until then, would you help me fold these clothes?”

Arguing is pointless.  Don’t correct!  Redirect!

I am a huge believer in what I call “distraction phrases.”  Most people with dementia have one, if only you can find it.  My father-in-law was a wanderer.  Physically, there was nothing anyone could do to keep him from leaving if he decided to leave the house.  However, he had always been very particular about his hair.  Anytime he would decide to leave, we could say, “Papa! Your hair is messed up! You should go comb it!”  Every time, this would distract him, no matter how often it was said.

The mother of a friend of mine has Alzheimer’s disease and is a devout Catholic.  Anytime my friend wishes to stop her mother from doing something, she says, “Mama, would you help me pray the Rosary?”  Every time, her mother stops whatever she is doing and prays with her daughter.

Think about what the person has always liked to do.  Is he religious?  Ask him to say a memorized prayer, quote the 23rd Psalm or sing a hymn with you.  Was she particular about her laundry?  Ask her to help you fold clothes (and always keep a basket of old clothes ready for her to fold!)  Does he have a favorite song?  Ask him to sing it with you.  If you can find your loved one’s “distraction phrase,” it can be an invaluable tool in your caregiver journey.

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