Truth or Kindness: Walking a Loved One through Dementia
by Karen Barnett
My grandma was the definition of a person with grit. After recently coming across an old black and white photo of her, I learned that she’d worked as a welder during World War II. It shouldn’t have surprised me, and I delighted in the grainy image of her dressed in protective gear and goggles. While my mom was the picture of polite manners, my grandma (her mother) could cuss with the best of them. Unfortunately, Grandma’s strength couldn’t protect her from the ravages of dementia. By the time I was in college, I was visiting her in the nursing home, taking a moment to reintroduce myself each time.
Watching someone you love go down this road is particularly painful. It feels like the person is losing not just memories, but large pieces of themselves. On good days, they might recover a few fragments of who they once were, only to misplace them again—like that long-forgotten photo. Oftentimes, it’s not only memories that are fading. Delusions replace reality. A common one is that someone is stealing from them. I’ve long wondered if that’s the brain’s way of reinterpreting the sense of loss they’re feeling.
It's disturbing when a loved one with dementia insists on something that we know isn’t true. But usually, the more we try to correct them, the more they dig in. Instead of fighting with truth, we can try to focus on kindness. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, “Love is patient, love is kind.”
It will only upset them if we come back with, “That’s crazy. The nurse didn’t steal your socks. She probably put them in the laundry.” Instead try something like, “That’s frustrating, isn’t it? How about I look around and help you find them?”
“You think there are bugs on your skin? I’ll use this warm washcloth to get them off. Doesn’t that feel good?”
But as believers, shouldn’t we always insist on the truth? I don’t think God would want us to put truth above love. Insisting on a truth they can’t grasp is self-serving. What really matters is that they’re heard. That they’re loved. Safe. Respected. And treated with gentleness and kindness.
Even though my grandmother passed away over twenty years ago, memories of her experience keep returning to my mind—especially when I find old photos of her. I’m a novelist, and my most recent book has a character whose beloved Gran suffers from dementia. Doing the research for the story made me go back and process some of what we went through together. And—even more painfully—as I was writing the book, my father passed away and my own mother’s health struggles with the onset of dementia grew more noticeable. We could no longer deny that Mom was in the early stages of the same cruel disease Grandma had endured.
So, the roles have shifted again. With her consent, my brothers and I recently moved her to the memory care wing of her assisted living facility. She likes the place and the people, but she knows she’s having trouble putting her thoughts together. Sometimes she can’t even find the words to say what is wrong. My heart aches for her, and I wish we could fix it. But the truth is, we can’t. And unless medical science makes major strides in the area of dementia in the next few decades, we eye our own futures with uneasy hearts.
What we can do in the meantime is respond to Mom with the same kindness, love and patience we’d want in her position. We’ll hold her hands, offer comfort when she’s confused and cry with her when she’s sad. Whatever comes, we’ll walk the path by her side, valuing each step we take together. Hopefully we inherited some of Grandma’s grit, because we know the journey won’t be easy.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a (NIV).
Karen Barnett is the award-winning author of When Stone Wings Fly: A Smoky Mountains Novel and the Vintage National Parks Novels. A former national park ranger, she and her husband now live in Albany, Oregon, with three mischievous dachshunds. Learn more at KarenBarnettBooks.com.