Many times a day, Mom asks us “Where are the dogs?” This question used to drive me crazy. I felt like every five seconds I was looking for the dogs, calling them in from the back yard, looking for them in the basement. I would tell Mom where the dogs are and then try to tell her all the reasons she does not need to worry about them.
Finally I realized that Mom was not really asking me where the dogs are. I had to stop responding to the question and respond to the emotion behind the question.
Mom is always wondering where the dogs are, where my son is, where Dad is, where my husband is. What she is really asking is if we are all safe. Mom loves us and just wants to know we are all ok. She was a stay at home mother, so she was always keeping track of her five kids, husband, and two dogs. That is who she is and it gives her great anxiety not knowing if we are safe.
So now the questions, “Where are the dogs?” and “Where is Jeffrey?” do not bother me anymore. What Mom is really saying is “I love you.” So we will search for and find the dogs, usually sleeping on the couch. And we will make more of an effort to communicate with Mom about where we are. We can write our location on the dry erase board in her bedroom so she always knows where we are and who is picking up Jeffrey from school.
People with dementia often ask repetitive questions or make repetitive claims about things. Often times they repeat themselves not because they can’t remember, which is our first assumption, but because they have a recurring feeling. Questions about the location of a person are often not actually questions, but an expression of the emotion that they care about someone. Claims that someone stole an item (a common statement made by people with dementia) may not be an accusation, but really an expression of a feeling of loss. Loss of ability or control.
Listening to the emotion and not just the words is a practice that can help us in all areas of our life, not just with our loved ones with dementia. There is usually an emotion driving what we are saying and if we can get to that emotion, we can get to the heart of the matter.
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