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When Your Parent Has Dementia - How to Talk to Them About Coronavirus

Man talking with elderly dad
Brunilda Nazario, MD - Blogs
By Brunilda Nazario, MDBoard-certified internist and endocrinologistMarch 27, 2020

As the COVID-19 outbreak has unfolded, the advice I’ve been giving everyone is ‘stay informed’, ‘keep your daily routine as close to normal as possible’, and ‘stay connected’.

But how do you talk to your elderly relatives or parents about coronavirus? And if your parent has dementia, how do you inform them about coronavirus without frightening them?

We recently tackled this with my mother-in-law. She lives in a skilled nursing home, and she’s accustomed to our weekly visits, our afternoons in the gardens, and hours of sitting together watching (and falling asleep to) Hallmark movies.

How do we explain physical distancing, and how do we explain why we haven’t come to visit?

Communication can be complicated and aging makes this worse. She’s separated from family and friends, she has hearing loss, and a decline in memory. She processes information a lot slower these days.

But seniors have a wide range of life experiences and cultural backgrounds that influence how they see the world, and you can tap into that experience to explain what’s happening now. In other words, explain it to them in terms they will understand.

We worked with the tuberculosis outbreak because she lived through it. There were parallels in the situations that we could use to help her understand what’s happening now with the coronavirus.

It was sobering for her to hear that we are now living like an era she experienced years ago. She knew that tuberculosis was a communicable and scary disease; and she understood that the isolation precautions were something that was needed for the safety of everyone. And she knew that there is hope.

Here are some tips we used:

  • Allow extra time.
  • If you can, minimize distractions.
  • Face to face, one-on-one works best.
  • Listen to what they have to say, it will help you understand.
  • Speak slowly, speak clearly, speak loudly and be simple.
  • Be calm.

Right now, nursing homes aren’t allowing visitations, so ask the facility how you can continue to have contact with your family member. Options include telephone calls, video chats, or even emails to check in. 

If your family member is unable to engage in calls or video chats, ask the staff or facility to how they can help you.

 

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About the Author
Brunilda Nazario, MD

Brunilda Nazario, MD, is the Lead Medical Director at WebMD and is responsible for reviewing WebMD content and ensuring its accuracy, timeliness, and credibility. She is a board certified Internist and Endocrinologist, she is also certified in Advanced Diabetes Management. Upon completion of a certification in bariatric medicine, Dr Nazario is now a Diplomate for the American Board of Obesity Medicine.

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