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How to React When Someone Tells You that They Have Alzheimer’s Disease

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Updated September 27, 2012

Imagine that you’ve just recently been told the you’re in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and, after much grieving and thought, you’ve decided to share that diagnosis with your two best friends. You gather up your courage, write down notes of how you want to say things, and practice in the mirror. You know this will come as a shock to them because you’re pretty good at covering for your short-term memory loss, but you’ve decided you want to be the one to tell them, rather than have them find out from someone else.

You make the call to ask them to meet you for coffee, and realize that you’ve just taken a step you might regret. What if they don’t react well? What if they avoid you, or treat you like you’re completely incompetent?

If you’re ever in the situation of being told by someone that they have Alzheimer’s, your reaction to that news can be a help and a support to them in that journey. But how do you know what to say or how to react? Here are some statements to avoid in that situation.

  • “I know how it feels.”

    Don’t say it unless you really do know how it feels.

  • “You should…”

    “You should drink this certain supplement” or “You should go to Dr. FixItAll” or “You should walk every day” or “You should …”. While your advice may be helpful and right on target, hold off on offering it until it’s asked for.

  • “It could be worse.”

    Maybe that could be true, but it doesn’t feel like it for that person. Don’t minimize their news and try to make everything fine. It's not fine, and it's not something to be dismissed.

  • The Insensitive Response

    “That’s TERRIBLE! Are you going to forget everything?”

  • “Really? Let me tell you about my aunt.”

    “My aunt had Alzheimer’s and she wandered all over and became paranoid. Oh, and my grandmother had it too and died six months after she was diagnosed.” Again, unless the person asks for more information, bite your tongue when tempted to tell stories about others who’ve had Alzheimer’s.

What To Say Instead

  • “I’m so sorry to hear this.”
  • “I’m here for you. Nothing changes that.”
    One of the common fears is that Alzheimer’s will not only rob the mind but also take away friendships. Reassure her of your lasting friendship.
  • “How are you holding up?”
  • “I won’t badger you, but if you want to talk, I’m here.”
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