Communicating with Suspicious  Minds

What’s real to you and real to them are two very different things.  So, toss logic out the window if  you’re living with or caring for someone with a suspicious mind.

If you read nothing more than this first sentence above, you’ve got 80% of the answer you need to live with, care for and/or be around someone who perceives things with suspicion.  The remaining 20% of what I am sharing here will help you with ways to communicate and respond…and give you a little more peace too.

Who and Why?

Science tells us that diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia can often cause  someone to misinterpret  what is happening to them or around them.  But that’s not the only group of people who can suddenly or gradually become more suspicious and develop  improper behavior.

As we age, confusion and memory loss can happen due to many other reasons, and lead  to paranoia/delusions such as:

  • Side effects of a medication (or combination of medications)
  • Chronic lack of enough sleep
  • Brain injury
  • Vitamin B1 and B12 deficiency
  • Emotional upset like depression and anxiety

Here’s a perfect example…  My dad, a couple weeks after surgery, started believing there was someone who was trying to get into the house at night and caused both my mom and him tremendous fear and irrational behavior…including dad wanting to get a gun out to protect them at night…which he did!  When my mom told me what was going on, all I could think of was that this was a tragedy just waiting to happen.  Reasoning with dad did no good at all.  Asking questions and listening to understand what he was experiencing did.  Getting down to figuring out what changed or could be causing this uncovered  it was the sleeping pills the doctor had prescribed.  Medication stopped and so did the behavior.

In the case of Alzheimer’s and dementia, it’s not this easy.  So, let’s take a look at some more universal communication strategies for dealing with suspicious minds.

Communicating and Responding.

I’ll say it again, logic is not the answer.  Reasoning with someone in this state will only cause more anger, frustration and suspicion.  What are some things we can do?

This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s what I’ve found  to be most effective in my own dealings with patients and family members who have, for one reason or another, developed a suspicious mind:

Let them express themselves to you first.  They must be heard.  They must be acknowledged.

  • Do not argue!
  • Do not try to convince them they are wrong.

Listen, listen, listen.  Let them know how much you care by trying to understand in a reassuring way.  Console.

  • Do not become defensive if they begin to attack you personally.
  • Do not become an authoritarian…e.g., shouting at them to “stop it”
  • Do not judge.

Pay attention to their emotions.  Offer words that respect them in their current state.  For example:

  • “I can see  how upset you are.  I would feel the same way.”
  • “I’m sorry  I cannot see what you are seeing, but I get why you are so……(frightened, concerned, angry, etc.)

Make sure that there really is no threat!

  • Just because someone is confused or has memory loss issues, doesn’t always mean they are wrong.  Verify.

Suggest simple answers.

  • Respond with your thoughts in brief, simple statements.
  • Do not start giving lengthy explanations…they will not hear you.

Distract and refocus.

  • Once you’re sure there’s no threat, refocus their intention quickly.
  • Ask for help with something.
  • Share something about what’s going on in your life or a piece of good news.
  • Move them to a different location in the room or go outside and change the subject.

Get others involved.

I’m a firm believer that there’s no reason you should ever have to shoulder a problem like this alone.  Get others involved.  Meaning, talk with friends/others who may have a family member who also has  this issue.  Let the care team (doctor, nurse, etc.) know.  There are medical options to help support and resolve the behavior, especially if not related solely to a chronic disease like Alzheimer’s or dementia.  Even so, the care team has tools that can be helpful to you and your family.

Consider journaling.  Keep track of when these things happen and how/what they say and respond.  Believe it or not, your journal just may help identify patterns that you’d not otherwise see…and be very helpful to the doctors.

It’s not easy.

Dealing with emotions, especially suspicious minds, is not easy.  Your emotional health is important too.  Recognize this as a truth and find support, take time for yourself to get breaks and talk with your doctor if it all becomes too stressful and emotionally draining for you.  Never be ashamed or reluctant to realize it’s gotten the better of you.   As I’ve moved through these situations in my own family, I’ve leaned on friends, my faith and doctors to help navigate.  Everyone has a breaking point.  This is going to push you to the outer limits of yours at times.  Be kind to yourself and care for you too!



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