Updated July 31, 2017
Why Arguing Doesn’t Work
Ever wonder why arguing doesn’t work? Short answer: because dementia.
You probably already knew that much. But why?
We tend to think of arguments as an emotional exchange. Things can get heated. One or both people often walk away angry. The thing is, the emotional response comes from the frustration you feel when the person you’re arguing with, for reasons surpassing your understanding, won’t accept the facts you’re presenting as true and correct.
Using reason and logic is not a winning way to persuade people living with dementia. Why? Because their brains are under attack. The attack actually prevents them from using reason and logic.
That may seem obvious to some, but it’s the big elephant in the room we often miss on this topic. Google “how to win an argument” and the first thing you’ll see is six tips under the headline If your goal is to resolve a conflict, then to “win” might mean you “lose”.
Google “how to win an argument with a person with dementia” [emphasis is mine] and you’ll find page after page of sneaky clickbait titles leading to articles in which all us professionals tell you essentially the same thing: YOU CAN’T WIN!
And Yet We Keep Doing It
And yet. We do love to try, don’t we? So let’s look at this from a different angle, beginning with the end in mind: what are you hoping to accomplish by “winning” this argument?
A past student told me she and her husband always argued over exactly the same thing. He would breezily comment, “Looks like it’s going to be a sunny day today!” She would point out to him that No, sir, it was not going to be a sunny day! The paper in fact said, right there in black and white, it was going to rain!
Because He Was Wrong!
Then, she recounted, her husband would “get in a huff” and demand to know why she always corrected him. Great question, right? I couldn’t wait to hear the answer.
She told me (in a slightly exasperated tone) that she always had to correct him because he was wrong! (If you’re like her, you might be thinking, Duh! Of course that’s why she always has to correct him! But if you’re like me, you’re thinking to yourself, Seriously? So what if he thinks it’s going to be sunny?)
So I Should Just Hide My Intelligence?
I honestly don’t think it had ever occurred to her that she didn’t have to correct him; no one was forcing her. Or that it was actually better not to correct him, that it would lead to a better outcome. I explained this to her, and then we got to the real deal behind this argument: “So I should just hide my intelligence?”
Please know that none of this has anything at all to do with intelligence. As a woman living with Alzheimer’s disease once told me: “You don’t have to tell everything you know.” Just because you know it’s going to rain doesn’t mean you have to say it. It doesn’t make you any less intelligent for keeping it to yourself.
And while we’re on intelligence, let me say for the record: I’ve known people living with dementia with PhDs, who’ve run successful businesses, who were whip-smart. They didn’t suddenly un-know all the things they knew.
They had an illness that prevented their brain from working correctly, from letting them easily access information they were trying to retrieve, or trying to say.
What’s Your Payoff?
On the other hand, your ability to use reason and logic are not impaired, so you understand that arguing with a person living with dementia is pointless, right? If you keep doing it, ask yourself: What’s your payoff? What are you getting out of arguing? (See #3 on Dr. Phil’s Ten Life Laws for a more thorough explanation of this principle.)
In the case of the student who felt compelled to correct her husband, he was no longer able to validate her as he once had. She was an accomplished, successful, intelligent woman, and part of the icing on the cake had long been her husband’s admiration of her intelligence. Once that clicked for her, she was able to stop correcting him (with some practice).
Ask yourself what’s really in it for you, and then make the necessary adjustments. If it’s truly just that you don’t know how to get out of the cycle, remember that practice will always make you better (and dementia will give you plenty of opportunities for mastery). If it’s something more than that, talk it through with a professional or trusted friend or support group. You deserve to be happy…and arguing isn’t the way to get there!
So What Does Work?
What do you do to get away from arguing and into peace, harmony, moments of joy, ease, respect, kindness, and love?
I got my start working with people living with dementia when I was 8 years old, when my mom took me to work with her one summer day. My ‘job’ was to visit with the residents. (To my 8 year-old mind, my ‘job’ was to soak up the attention of 50 grandmas and grandpas. Best summer job ever.)
A great big guy (think the guy in The Green Mile) decided he was going to walk home to St. Louis. We were in California, in the middle of nowhere. It was a hundred and hell out that day.
The staff told him he couldn’t walk home. It was too far away. He’d get tired. He couldn’t walk that far. It was too hot. Blah blah blah.
Four staff cornered him to keep him from going out the door. I told you how big he was; you know what happened next.
Somewhere in my 8 year-old brain, I got the genius idea that I’d be helpful. So I ran out of the building, out the gate, and down the road after him.
When I caught up to him, I looked up at him and put my hand out. He put his hand in mine. I turned around, and he followed suit because we were holding hands. We walked back into the building together.
What’s the point? That managing dementia is so easy even an 8 year-old can do it? Nah.
I did happen to get it right that day, but it took a little over 20 years to figure out what I did that made that interaction successful.
In fact, my next memorable interaction with a person living with dementia is from my very first day as a professional. That’s the day I got hit upside the head and knocked on my butt–all before lunch time. After lunch, I made a nice lady cry because of my ignorance.
Those experiences were powerful motivators for figuring out what worked and what clearly did not.
Here’s The “Secret Sauce”
The point is, I did figure out what works. And the good news is, you don’t have to figure it out. I already did, and I’m happy to show you.
● I’ll show you why arguing doesn’t work–and what to do instead.
● Explain how we fall into the trap of arguing–and a mindset shift that will keep you out of that trap.
● Give you exact strategies for how to avoid arguments, AND how to communicate with your parent or partner in a way that makes sense to them.
● Explain what’s really going on when your parent or partner is “lying,” in “denial,” or “having behaviors.” You may be shocked when you find out (…and then facepalm when it suddenly makes such obvious sense to you).
None of these tips and strategies cost money to implement, and they’re all yours, free.
Start with making a vow to yourself you’ll approach every interaction with respect, kindness, and love. Your energy is contagious. When you’re bringing all the good stuff, you’re starting from a good place. From there, you’ve got lots of possibilities.
For a deeper dive, check out 9 Ways To Optimize Quality of Life, which also addresses arguing. (I presented this at the Alzheimer’s Association’s 18th Annual McGinty Conference in November 2016.)
The Rest of The Story
Why was I successful as an 8 year-old? I’ve had years to speculate, and I keep coming back to things that were essentially outside my control (but that can still be easily replicated).
I’ve said for years and years and years that people living with dementia are easily able to pick up on our energy. I say this because I’ve witnessed it thousands of times.
It doesn’t matter if a person living with dementia knows your name or recognizes you (although it’s certainly painful if your loved one doesn’t), because they always know your energy. They’re easily able to sort out who they like, and who they don’t.
They pick up immediately on impatience, but also pick up immediately on love and kindness and all the good things.
So when it comes to the great big guy I’ve come to think of as Mr. St. Louis, I think what worked is being a little kid–in the sense that it never occurred to me to argue with him. Or to try reasoning with him, or using logic. I was too young to know what I was (supposedly) supposed to do!
Instead, I did what kids are naturally good at: showed up and was just there. In the moment, with him. I was so much smaller than Mr. St. Louis, I didn’t represent any sort of physical threat. I didn’t say a word, so I didn’t represent a verbal sparring partner.
I think, being so much smaller than him and being a kid, I gave him an opportunity to feel completely in control of the situation, and gave him a sense of purpose: Mr. St. Louis instinctively chose to protect a child, and that was more important to him than doing what he what he was planning to do (walk home).
Everyone needs a sense of purpose to get out of bed in the morning, whether they’re living with dementia or not. And I’ve yet to meet the person who doesn’t like feeling a sense of control.
Christy Turner is the founder of DementiaSherpa.com and has enjoyed the privilege of working with over 1,123 people living with dementia and their families. Follow on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube. Content varies across platforms.