How to Continue Having a Meaningful Relationship When Your Parent Has Dementia

Lisa Fields
Added: 06.24.2022
5 minutes read
Your parent has been an important fixture in your life for as long as you can remember, and then some. If your parent is diagnosed with dementia, it can be troubling to watch their condition progress, knowing that over time, your relationship will change. Although you won’t have the same dynamic that you’ve had in the past, you can still have a meaningful connection with a parent who has dementia.

“What the people don’t forget, even if they forget your name, is that they don’t forget the love,” says psychotherapist Marcie Dimenstein, LCSW, founder of the Connecticut-based Elder Pathways. “That’s true until the very end – they don’t forget the feelings that you have between you.”

Adjusting your attitude and expectations may help you get more out of the time that you spend with your parent with dementia. Here are some ideas that may help you maintain a meaningful connection:

When conversations change

When dementia impacts your parent’s memory, they may repeat themselves or forget what you’ve told them. They may have trouble finding words to express what they want to say, or they may become disinterested in conversation altogether.

You can still try to have enjoyable conversations together. To encourage a dialogue, speak slowly and give simple choices. If your parent doesn’t understand what you’re saying, phrase things differently. Don’t finish their sentences, even if they’re grasping for the right thing to say; let them speak for themselves.

Turn off the television when you want to talk, so that the sound and pictures won’t distract them from the conversation. Making eye contact may help them concentrate on what you’re saying more easily.

Try not to get angry if they ask the same question or make the same observation over and over. And try to listen patiently, instead of correcting them, if they talk about something that they believe is true, even if you know that it isn’t. If you become frustrated and lose your temper, forgive yourself and try to act differently next time.

“You’re absolutely supposed to accept them for what they do [and say],” Dimenstein says, “[but] the thing that you can count on is: At least they’re not going to remember that you yelled at them.”

When your parent stops communicating 

As time passes, your parent may communicate with you less frequently, become non-verbal or withdraw into themselves, but there are still ways for you to connect. They may still appreciate hearing you talk to them about your day, or they may respond well to physical touch. Try placing a hand on their shoulder gently when you see them, or hold their hand to express your love.

Find ways to spend time together that honors their hobbies and interests. Watch old movies together that you know that they love. Listen to their favorite music. Pore through old photo albums.

“Some people at the late stages of dementia are not going to engage at all; some people absolutely will,” Dimenstein says. “Some will look at pictures. It depends on what parts of their brain were affected by the kind of dementia they had. [Maybe] they don’t remember an adult picture of their brother, but they might remember a kid picture.”

When you share potentially reminiscent experiences with your parent, don’t challenge them to remember anything from their past. Instead, do it to spend quality time with them and to express your love for them.

“If what you’re trying to do is help the person be more lucid, I think that you have to give up that thought,” Dimenstein says. “They’re going to be however they are, and that’s how you have to accept them – the way they accepted you as a child, hopefully.”