Paranoia is one of the many possible challenges of dementia. It’s a blaming belief or suspicion that a person with dementia holds onto, despite explanations or lack of proof of this belief.
Sometimes people with dementia will accuse others in the household of stealing something that they themselves have misplaced. It is very tempting to try to convince the person otherwise when they believe that something has been stolen. But arguing doesn’t get us very far when a person has dementia. It usually causes stress, frustration and upset for all concerned! It is more productive to “cross to their side of the street” in order to see things compassionately, from the person’s point of view. Sandra McGurran, social worker with Fairview Home Care and Hospice Senior Services, recently shared with me the idea that “Compassion = Empathy + Action” This concept can be applied here.
Here are some DO’S and DON’TS to guide you in giving a compassionate response in these sorts of situations.
DO NOT TAKE OFFENSE on behalf of the accused person.
DO LISTEN to what is bothering the person with dementia, and VALIDATE their feeling, i.e., “That’s not a very nice feeling, to think someone would just take something from you.”
DO RESIST THE URGE to get into an argument with the person.
DO ACKNOWLEDGE the upset. “I can see why you’re upset. I would be too, if that happened to me.”
DO NOT offer a lengthy opinion or a list of reasons why they shouldn’t be upset.
DO OFFER A SIMPLE IDEA. “I wonder if your blouse is in the wash.” Or… “Maybe your wallet was left in a pocket?”
DO BE HELPFUL and action-oriented. “I will go check the laundry room. Or, "Let’s check your pockets”.
DO ASK QUESTIONS. “Let me get this right. What color was that shirt?"
DO BE REASSURING. “Don’t you worry. We will get to the bottom of it. I’m sure we’ll find it” Or, “I’m good at finding things.”
DO SHIFT THE FOCUS. “Let’s have a cup of coffee; coffee always helps me think more clearly!” Be sure to offer something you know the person will be interested in!
DO DUPLICATE items that are repeatedly misplaced. For example, if a person often loses their wallet, obtain several of the same kind to keep on hand. Make copies of cards that are in the original, so you can stuff the replacement wallets with those.
But what if YOU are the person being accused directly? This can certainly be tricky. It’s hard not to feel hurt by such an accusation. What can you do?
DO LET THAT ROLL OFF YOUR BACK in favor of remembering that your family member is functioning with a brain that is doing the absolute best it can possibly do under the circumstances of dementia.
DO TRY IGNORING THE ACCUSATION. Instead, simply validate the person’s feelings, i.e., “Oh no! Your favorite blouse is missing? Of course you’re upset. That’s a beautiful blouse!”
Maybe this will distract the focus from YOUR culpability, or maybe not. Depending on the level of the person’s upset and suspiciousness, you might need to step away and if someone else is available to assist. In that case, try, “I can see you’re upset with me. I’ll go see if Ann will help you look.”
DO THINK AHEAD. For things that are frequently misplaced, it could be helpful to establish and clearly label a home base in the room where a purse can hang or a wallet can sit. You might initiate a routine of checking that spot every night together.
Finally, it can really help in any sort of frustrating situation with a person with dementia to MAINTAIN A SENSE OF HUMOR AND GOOD WILL towards the person. Is there a way you can turn that uncomfortable situation around and actually give the person a compliment? Maybe you can remind them of advice they once gave you! “You know, Mom, I remember you telling me when I lost stuff that I would forget my head if it wasn’t attached. You were so right! You also said that lost things usually turn up if we are teensy bit patient! That was always so helpful!”
For more info on coping with paranoia as well as other challenges that can arise with dementia, see Coping with Behavior Change in Dementia: A Family Caregiver’s Guide, by Beth Spencer and Laurie White.
--Marysue Moses, Ebenezer Dimensions Program Coordinator
Ebenezer is Minnesota’s largest senior living operator with 100 years of experience serving older adults. As part of Fairview Health Services, Ebenezer is dedicated to healing, discovering and educating for longer, healthier and meaningful lives.
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