Feelings are Real

For me, the most difficult “cultural difference” to adjust to in the world of dementia is the fact that the use of reason is strangely – adamantly – not useful. I’ve read stacks of books looking for an appropriate substitute, but, so far, no luck.

The explanation I’ve found goes something like this: Imagine that someone with dementia believes a neighbor has stolen his coffee cup. Rather than reasoning with him (“Your coffee cup hasn’t been stolen; it’s in the bedroom where you left it”), the best thing to do is acknowledge his feelings (“I’d be angry too if someone took something of mine”).

Reasoning does not help. Instead, it creates conflict, because now, in addition to the “fact” that his cup has been stolen, you are calling him a liar, and/or you’re in cahoots with the thief.

Even showing him the so-called stolen cup will not solve the problem. The dementia-afflicted mind will come up with any number of implausible stories to “prove” to you that the coffee cup you’re showing him is a fraud – probably placed there by someone with evil purposes in mind.

It’s so hard not to argue. But don’t. And if you simply cannot stop yourself, at least know in advance that you’re doing so for your own sake, not for the person with dementia; you cannot reason him out of his reality.

Remember: Acknowledge the feeling. Even if the “reality” isn’t real, the feeling is.


My dad is the little guy in the middle between his two older brothers Melvin and Wayne. I'm guessing this photo was taken late 1937 or early 1938.

My dad is the little guy in the middle between his two older brothers Melvin and Wayne. I’m guessing this photo was taken late 1937 or early 1938.


P.S. The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for People Who Have Alzheimer Disease, Related Dementias, and Memory Loss (by Nancy L. Mace and Peter V. Rabins) is a very practical book with explanations and ideas about day-to-day living with dementia. You can read it cover to cover or just jump directly to the chapter addressing your pressing concern. It’s been around for a while and has been updated several times.



2 responses to “Feelings are Real

  1. Susan, your stolen-cup example is powerful and simple, like using “and” at the beginning of a reply, comment, suggestion, or reflection during “normal” conversations with others. Brings to mind multifamily, Thanksgiving gatherings when conversation mostly sounds like arguing. Wait! It is arguing. Very few resist arguing. I am a big arguing machine. Is it nature or nurture? I lean towards nurture and never leaving the parenting role. Call it wanting to be in control of everything, including conversations. Too bad dementia doesn’t make one forget this learned habit, AND too bad I don’t forget this habit. Control is power AND with loving diligence I will try to leave stolen-cup type control moments with the dementia patient for the sake of their dignity as I foster living while dying. We all eventually die. Maybe I will change my need to be in control before my time AND have a non-controlling caregiver.

    • This is one of the blessings of experiencing dementia (or any life-altering disease) with a loved-one; it forces you to look at yourself and examine the good, the bad, and the “where the heck did THAT come from?!!” of your beliefs and habits.
      Thanks for you comments, Frank. 🙂

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