What (and What Not) To Say to a Friend Recently Diagnosed with Dementia

March 13, 2020 by Institute on Aging
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It shouldn’t come as a surprise that in the weeks following the holidays, there is typically a spike in dementia diagnoses. People tend to spend more time with family members during the holiday season than almost any other time of the year, and so it’s more noticeable when Mom has trouble remembering where the napkins are, even though she’s stored them in the same place for years, or Dad has difficulty finishing a sentence or telling a story without rambling.

Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia) is all around us. The number of Americans being diagnosed with dementia is rising so rapidly that it’s inevitable that most of us will experience being in contact with a family member, friend or acquaintance of someone who has been diagnosed at some point in our lives.

Friends abandoning friends who have been recently diagnosed is more common than one thinks, according to this article in The Wall Street Journal. Friends of those who are diagnosed the disease either simply don’t know what to say, or worse, say nothing at all and disappear. Sadly, this happens whether it is a new friendship or a 30-year bond.

How to handle the situation? “First off, don’t disappear,” says Alison Moritz, Program Director for Institute on Aging’s Enrichment Center which offers social day programs for adults with dementia. “Hold the diagnosed person close and listen to them. Offer a sense of normalcy, such as going to the movies with them or having lunch together. Everyone involved needs to hold onto familiar rituals and a sense community, because they are collectively experiencing a loss.”

Adds Moritz, if it’s a parent of a friend who has been diagnosed, “don’t tell your friend it’s a ‘blessing’ to get to take care of their parent, or worse, share horror stories of what you’ve personally experienced. Let your friend ask for advice in his or her own time.”

Some other suggestion for interacting with a newly diagnosed friend:

Don’t Joke About Forgetfulness       

While you don’t want to come off as overly serious, there is a line between that and being too light about things. Making jokes in front of the person about their tendency to forget things is insensitive.

Listen, Listen and then Listen Some More

Matthew*, whose mother was diagnosed, shared that his friends either disappeared or said dismissive things like “well, at least you still have your mother” or “you’ll be good at this” or “everything happens for a reason.” In this case, the friends could have just listened to what he had to say or let him vent his feelings.

 Don’t Forget to Take Care of the Caregiver

When Rebecca* found out about her husband’s diagnosis, it was a dark and scary time for both of them and also a point when friendships became even more important to the couple. She also discovered she needed to be specific about her needs as her husband’s caregiver when friends offered to help, such as requesting that they take him out for a walk or to lunch when she needed a break. 

*names have been changed to protect privacy

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