How to Help when Someone is Lost in Time or Space

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Have you experienced situations in which a person living with dementia seems unaware of where they are, or they ask to see their little child while not remembering that they are long grown up? It could be something like your mom calling and explaining that she’s lost, just for you to realize from conversation that she’s really standing in her kitchen.

When a person is living with dementia (PLwD), there are times when their life gets turned around. For you as their care partner, one of the first things you want to recognize is: wow, they’re not here anymore, they’ve made a trip to somewhere else.

What that trip actually means is that their hippocampus, or learning center of their brain, has relocated them to another time or place. A healthy brain keeps the timeline of our life in chronological order, from childhood to adulthood. However, when dementia sets in, this timeline may no longer work correctly, causing the person to think they really are in another place or time at that very moment.

As a care partner, one of the biggest mistakes you can make in a situation like this is to force them to come back to where you are. You have to realize, if the person was able to return to the actual time or place, they would.

Rather, try to figure out at which time or place they are, and join them there instead. Look for ways to support the person in their current state of reality until there’s a way to ease them back into the now.

Another common care partner approach that can easily turn into a mistake is to make up little lies like: Oh, they called from work and said you don’t have to go in today. Unless you know the person’s history really, really well, this can backfire and worsen the situation overall. And one misstep is all it takes for them to lose their trust and become suspicious, possibly making future interactions even harder.

What to Do Instead

Instead of taking the usual approach of wanting to fix what’s wrong - get curious! Ask yourself what it is your PLwD might be wanting or needing in this moment.

Why are they going to this place in their mind?

What is really driving their request?

If we’re not willing to get curious about what’s taking them to a particular place, phase, or time, then we totally miss the meaning. And that meaning usually is: I don’t know what to do here, I don’t know how to be here, or there is a place that can help me as long as I can get there.

Try repeating the questions back to your PlwD, asking them to tell you more about what it is they want. That can help you figure out what really might be going on.

By exploring and being curious, you can figure out what it is about the now that doesn’t feel right to your person living with dementia. Your willingness to let go of what’s not working can become the critical piece that is needed to actually make it work.

Want to learn even more about this very topic? Watch Teepa's webinar recording, and get many more practical tips and insights so you know how to best help when your person living with dementia is lost in time or space. Click here to browse available webinars today!

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14 Comments on “How to Help when Someone is Lost in Time or Space”

    1. Avatar

      Hi Donna! Unfortunately we are not offering CEUs for this webinar, but I hope we’ll be able to offer them in the future.

  1. Avatar

    This is a fantastic topic to discuss, and something that we as Care Partners see every day when caring for our friends.
    I will be sending this out to our entire team, and our families!!

    Thank you for being such an advocate in the understanding of Dementia.

    Donna Lenyk, Granddaughters Personal Care Inc.
    Calgary, Alberta

  2. Avatar

    My mom is 97 years old. Will be 98 in May 2019. Had aged related dementia. I have go to be with her for the pass 5 1/2 years for 7-8 hours. Now she is having trouble getting her words out. Images lots of things. Gets angry easier or frustrated. She is always thinking about going going going but never just STILL. I’m exhausted from her constant moving or wandering @FBMC

  3. Avatar

    If u cannot be present during the webinar, is it somehow saved to look at later? How long will this class last?

    1. Avatar

      Hi Carolyn! The webinar is approximately 1.5 hours in length. If you decide to register, your registration includes access to the recording of this session (even if you cannot attend live). You would receive a link to the recording of the video approximately one week after the live event, and you’d have unlimited viewing access to this video for a period of one year. Hope that helps!

  4. Avatar

    I attended the webinar yesterday and would like to print out the presentation, where can I go to do so?

    1. Avatar

      Hello! You should have received an email the day after the webinar with the downloads. Please let us know in case you didn’t get it. Best wishes, Valerie

  5. mom2anj

    Just finished watching the webinar. It helped some and I’ve looked around on here but didn’t find help with my particular situation. My Mom is I would say a Ruby. She lives in an Assisted living facility. 95% of the time I go see her, she says”Oh good, you’re here to take me home or either her parents house because they are waiting on her” She thinks we are in Fla where her parents lived. We are in SC. I don’t feel what I’ve been doing which is requiring her, she lives here. Can I get help as to how to respond?

    1. Carolyn Lukert

      So your mom is thinking she is in a different place and time and wanting to go elsewhere. I wonder if something like this would work:

      Mom: Oh good, you are here to take me to mom and dad’s. They are waiting.
      You: Oh, so Mom and Dad are waiting you, are they? Do they have something special planned?
      Mom: Well, no. Not anything special. They always have me over for Sunday dinner
      You: Oh, Sunday dinner. What’s your favorite Sunday dinner food?
      Mom: Spaghetti and meatballs!
      You: Yum, you are making me hungry! (Then continue to talk about favorite foods, or some related topic.)

      Perhaps your mom is hungry, and this will set the stage for transitioning to going to dinner – but not at her mom and dad’s!

      Make sense?

    2. Avatar

      mom2anj…I am so glad you asked because we deal with the same situation almost daily!
      She wants to go visit her mom before it’s to late. My mom just turned 85 her mom is deceased but she wants to go see her before her mom dies. Right now we tell her “her mom would love to see her but she is with her sister right now (who is also deceased) and we will let her know when we hear from her.” Not sure if that’s appropriate but like you we struggle with how to stay in her world when we don’t really know what or where that is. Hers is stroke related so she also has aphasia. ( Where at times she knows whats going on but her words in her head don’t match her words coming out of her mouth no matter how hard she tries.) It can be really difficult to distinguish the difference when this happens so we need to be really careful or like it was said trust can start to erode.
      Hope Carolyn’s response helps. We need to get creative and make it our own. Blessings on your ‘adventures’

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