Getting Through to a Parent with Dementia: Talking and Touching

My mother, who died at 83, suffered from dementia in her last year or two. Only forty-seven when my father died of cancer, and still full of vitality, she finally met a fellow named Ted. Ted gave her many years of companionship until an illness forced me to move mom from Buffalo, our hometown, to Philadelphia, where I worked.

Ted died in Buffalo about a year before mom died in Philadelphia. When his family called to tell me of his death, I felt I had to find a way to break the news to mom even though by then her dementia left her unable or, I sometimes thought, unwilling, to acknowledge anything I said to her, even by nodding her head.

I began by asking my mom if she remembered Ted and, as usual, received not a look or a word that indicated she understood what I had said. So I repeated my question and, once again, nothing. Her lunch, almost none of it eaten, still sat on a tray table next to her armchair, and something possessed me to move the table and tray aside and take both her hands in mine as gently as I could. Looking as straight at her as I ever had, I asked mom once again, this time with a special softness, if she remembered Ted. And while once again she gave no sign of hearing me, I thought I saw something in her eyes that flickered recognition. So I repeated my question again, and as I did the tears began falling down her cheeks. My few softened words had apparently gotten through to her, and we looked at each other with as much affection, I think, as we ever had, or ever would, even though (or perhaps because) our “conversation” was about somebody else. But it was less my few words, I think, that started up her tears than the feel of my hands in hers and hers in mine.