Question: My dad’s cognitive skills are declining. What’s the best way to respond when he gets frustrated when he can’t do something and starts calling himself “stupid”?
Answer: First, I want to recognize your keen choice of the word “respond,” versus “react.” Because there may not be one best way to respond, here are a few tips to respond with empathy and to redirect these behaviors of frustration and self-deprecating remarks. (These tips follow the CARES approach by HCInteractive.)
Respond by reassuring him that this incident does not define him
Let’s start by recognizing it’s completely normal to feel the urge to react by saying, “No, Dad you are not stupid.” I have witnessed many adult children and even spouses of those with changes in cognition commonly experience an impulse to react by correcting their loved one. With that being said, I would challenge you to explore a person-centered approach by reinforcing his identity, or how you and loved ones perceive him. The moment you sense frustration building, begin connecting and reminisce with him of his occupation, trade, hobbies, talents, positive attributes—the things that truly define him.
…explore a person-centered approach by reinforcing his identity, or how you and loved ones perceive him.
Make a habit of giving praise or compliments, even on the little things
When responding to your dad’s frustration in not being able to accomplish a task or recall where an item was left, you may find that recalling recent praise or compliments given may result in less focus on the negative and more of the positives in his abilities! Alternatively, if he’s frustrated being stuck in a multi-step task (such as getting dressed), you might praise the progress achieved with buttoning a shirt (even if they’re misaligned by a button or two).
Your initial response may not always be a verbal one
In some cases, a person expressing forms of self-deprecation in response to stress or frustration may not wish to be consoled right away, and they may make that known in various ways. In these scenarios, as a family caregiver, it’s important to know when to step away for a short time before responding.
…as a family caregiver, it’s important to know when to step away for a short time before responding.
Know when it’s time to involve others
You’re not alone in your experience. Stay connected, and ensure new changes in behavior are being shared with your dad’s medical care team. Receiving insights from a medical professional or neurologist may provide you clarity on why these behaviors are occurring.
My final advice to you is to keep all parties involved in your dad’s care updated with the techniques you find are most effective—and which are not. Having all parties involved on the same page in responding to his cognitive changes is an effective way to drive positive outcomes.