Communicating with the Family
I am wondering how to tell my aunt with dementia that her husband has died?

Telling someone about the death of a family member is difficult for most people, but it is even more challenging when the person you have to tell has dementia. Your approach will depend on the extent of the person's disease, where the person is at and how much they remember.

Often the first thought is to try to protect the person with dementia and not confuse them. Some people may avoid discussing death for this reason. However, it is important to remember that your aunt is still the person she has always been, and to respect that she can still feel the same emotions; she just may not be able to express them the way she used to. Also, not sharing the news may confuse her more and make it harder for her to cope, especially if her husband visited regularly.

There isn't one approach that works for all people with dementia, but there are a few things to consider. Several sources give these recommendations for sharing the news of death with someone who has dementia:

  • Have only one person break the news, to avoid overwhelming your aunt with a group of people.
  • Find a quiet, comfortable spot, and choose a time of the day when your aunt is well-rested.
  • Use clear sentences like ‘your husband has died’, and avoid phrases like ‘passed away’. This improves the chances that she will understand what she is being told.

After you tell your aunt about her husband’s death, it is important to watch how she reacts:

  • What does she say?
  • How does her facial expression change?
  • What does she do?

Reading these cues will help you to connect with how she is feeling at the time, as well as to know what to say if she asks about her husband in the future. For example, if you are talking about her husband, a change in her facial expression may tell you she is distressed. This in turn may tell you it is time to stop talking about his death.

Responding to her emotions will help her to feel supported and comforted. You may simply acknowledge her feelings by saying ‘this must make you feel sad’. Your conversations may shift into reminiscing about her husband and their times together, which she may find comforting.

You may find it helpful to read this article from Alzheimer Scotland, Loss and Bereavement in People with Dementia. It offers practical tips and strategies for sharing news of a death.

Also contact your local Alzheimer Society office. They may have additional suggestions and/or counselling staff to guide you in talking to and supporting your aunt.