Feeling suspicious is very common

Dear Jo,

Our neighbor, Jack, often comes over to help out with Dad.  At times, my father gets angry at me or Jack and accuses us of stealing all his money.  No matter how many times I try to explain that we are there to help him, he continues to be angry and yells, “Get out, and never come back!”  I can handle this, but Dad doesn’t understand when I ask him to be nice to our neighbor.  How can I get him to be nicer to Jack?  We really need the help he provides.

Jo Says:

Feeling suspicious is very common for people with memory impairment.  They often put important things in a ‘safe place,’ and when the impaired person can’t find those things, it can be very frustrating for them.  It is logical to blame someone (especially a “stranger”) when things go missing.  It’s also very embarrassing for your dad to be confronted with his memory impairment or mistakes.  Absolute #3 tells us: Never Shame, Instead Distract.  This can be a very useful tool.

Remember that even though his memory is going, your dad’s emotions – those feelings that make us all human, and direct almost all of our actions – are alive and well.  Emotions are all he has to govern his actions by.  When we embarrass someone with Alzheimer’s (or anybody at all, for that matter), it makes them feel ashamed, out of control, and hurts their feelings.  Since your dad may not have a sense of how reasonable his actions are anymore, this can often result in outbursts of frustration and anger.

You and Jack both know something is wrong, and you are truly there to help.  The best way to help is to focus on pleasant things.  You can validate your dad’s feelings about what he’s lost by saying something like, “That must be really difficult for you, Dad.” Then go on to a subject that is pleasant for everyone, such as, “Look what Jack brought over to go with our coffee!  Don’t these cookies look delicious?” This may seem like a form of bribery, but let’s be realistic – bribery works!  So if you come prepared to get your dad involved in something pleasant, like drinking coffee and eating cookies, and then become engaged in that subject, the unpleasant subjects will dissipate. If he starts asking again about his money then you can say something rational and honest like, “Well!  We certainly like to keep most of our money in the bank, but if you need some, I can lend you a few bucks.”  In both of these ways, we steer the situation in a better direction while still letting our loved ones keep their dignity intact.