How do I help support a person with dementia when they lose a loved one?
A person with dementia can experience grief and can mourn actively as anyone else depending on the stage of the disease they are in. Supporting a person in the early stage may involve telling the person with dementia that their loved one has died, helping them understand the nature of the death and providing time and comfort for them to grieve in their own way. This may entail allowing them to plan the funeral or memorial or be part of the ceremony in some way. It may also include them in any culturally or religious rituals that provides them with comfort. Over time the person with dementia may ask about the loved one and in the early stage telling them what happened may be part of the family's plan. Preparing a photo album with pictures of the loved one during happy occasions may help the person with dementia focus on these happy times.
For a person with dementia in the middle to later stages of the disease, often their memory may not be long enough to 'hold' the details of the death and the loss. They may experience a change in behaviours, appearing more confused, sad, or disoriented especially if the loved one was a full time caregiver. The suggestions above will also help this person to grieve the loss. In the middle to later stages the person with dementia may often ask repeatedly where their loved one is. If is often suggested that 'reminding' the person with dementia that their loved one is dead is beneficial. This can increase anxiety and prolong the grieving process as each time they are told of the death the person with dementia will acutely grieve as if the event just happened. This can not only be traumatic for the person with dementia but also for the family to continue to tell the story of the death. As a suggestion, asking the person what they remember about their loved one, reminiscing a happy event or looking at a photo album is a better choice.
For a person in the later stages telling them of the loss of a loved one may not even register or be retained. It is often the feelings of the family that they 'need' to tell the person with dementia of this loss. As a suggestion, keeping the message very short and very clear and not repeating it again is a better way for the person with dementia to hear the information. They may not show any emotion. This is normal. Allowing time to reflect, telling stories, showing photos, and allowing ritual to be part of the person with dementia's life is recommended for healing for the whole family.