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This Christmas, we're going to not only have my grandparents, but also two siblings of my grandmother join our family for dinner. The great-uncle is often fine, he's still very active, has plenty of stories of his own to tell, and can even keep up (to an extent) with younger generations and our stories.

The great-aunt, on the other hand, is suffering from some form of dementia, is leading a very inactive and lonely life, with her only 'contacts' generally being her daughter or my grandparents. Her dementia is at a point where she doesn't realize she has already just told you a story.

The last time we met was around June, at a party of my grandparents. We were seated next to each other, so we talked. She was repeating the same story a lot (about how her daughter was on vacation for a few weeks, how much she missed this and how glad she would be when said daughter would be back). But she also had some very entertaining stories about her life when she was younger, and she seemed much happier talking about her past than her current life.

So, I tried to encourage these stories by asking questions, trying to offer some prompts like "Grandma often talks about X, do you remember?", and generally trying to let her see I was interested in listening to these stories. Yet, she sometimes didn't finish her stories. I would describe her as zoning out, becoming lost in her own thoughts. And whenever she 'snapped out of it', I would say she looked sad, and she would start again about how her current life was lonely without her daughter.

Those conversations about her past were easier for me to have than just patiently listening to the same story for the 4th time, yet they seemed to take a toll on her emotionally whenever she zoned out/snapped out of it again.

Given that I expect I'll spend a significant amount of time talking to this elderly relative over Christmas dinner, is there a way to encourage this great-aunt to tell about her past, so I don't have to listen the same story over and over, without her zoning out/returning being sad?

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    I think, the "without her zoning out/returning being sad?" part might make this unanswerable, without either specifics about the cause of her emotional change (like she maybe explained it at one point?) or any sort of diagnosis if there is any relation between her condition you describe and that reaction. But it might aswell just be my lack of empathy for her condition, making this unanswerable for ME. Still wanted to give that note. – dhein Dec 16 '19 at 11:01
  • I have seen people wanting to help a dement person remember something quite wrong (to my impression), probably making the person feel helpless and sad. So I'd say first of all it is very important to understand dementia's effects on a person. Perhaps good advise can be found in a medical forum that is dealing with this special subject more deeply and with a lot more people having experience with it. There may be different forms or stages of this desease, then asking a person's doctor how to handle the person best could also give good and adjusted advise. – puck Jan 27 at 5:44
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My grandfather has dementia and one of my friends works with demented patients.

Sadly, because of her condition, normal social interaction and conversations may be hindered when her memories or thoughts go haywire. She may have difficulties remembering something, tell you things that are blatant lies but she truly believes happened and yes, at times forget that she just told you the exact same story. Especially things that are very emotional will have some extra influence. (my grandfather for example usually doesn’t remember my name, but could tell me his son, so my uncle, had died recently)

This also means you can work on your interpersonal skills all you want, but if she is having a bad day (dementia wise) you just might have to sit through the retelling of the same thing over and over.

However, there are some tips you might take to heart:

  • try to remember this is just one dinner and supposed to be a fun family affair, so be patient with her, this condition is a lot harder on her than you
  • when she tells you something that is a blatant lie, just go along with it, trying to force her to change her mind will only cause extra distress
  • photos and items from that period may help trigger a memory, so if you want to hear more from her past, ask your grandmother if she has some old albums you can look through
  • have people who knew her before chip in to keep the story going
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    This is a good answer. I would only add that to be charitable, try not to look at something untrue as a blatant lie in this situation. Just a mistaken memory and if is not consequential (nothing that would offend another person's reputation, etc.) then as you said, just go with it. – Damila Dec 16 '19 at 20:28
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Another thing to consider is the zoning out and being sad could very well be due to her having forgotten what comes next. This is a very real and frustrating part of this condition. If she at least is still remembering that she had forgotten that bit, she'll be very reluctant to re-attempt that story.

It may be better to encourage her to tell a different story. That said, you risk that experience with any dive down memory lane. The least risk is stories that you also know, because if she gets stuck, you can fill in the missing details.


One of the prescription drugs I was on for years gave me drug-induced dementia. Once I was off the drug, that problem went away. It's apparently a known side effect of that drug which eventually affects 1-2% of people who take it. However, it gave me a much better and more terrifying idea of what that condition is like.

I've also known a number of people who had some form or another of dementia. One of these people was my great aunt.

My family went to visit her shortly after she went into hospice care. The most memorable part of the visit was when my father (her nephew) had to go take care of some business, leaving my mother and brothers to keep her company.

While my father was gone, she started to tell us a story from when he had been a child. But she got about half way and then suddenly looked very troubled. After a bit she seemed to fall asleep for a brief nap, and then woke up.

My mother, not knowing any better, and interested in hearing a story she'd never heard before about her husband, asked for her to finish the story. My great aunt began the story, got to the same part, and then looked troubled - possibly more so than before. Another short nap, and then we repeated the experience again, at which point she was broke down to the point of tears.

My father returned before she woke up again. Mom told him about what happened, and he had enough time to assert that Mom shouldn't have pressured her for the same story before my great aunt woke up.

This time, she told my father about the story she'd been telling. He encouraged her to tell the story, despite having just told my mother she shouldn't have. But this time, when my great aunt got to the point she couldn't remember, he filled in the gap she'd been stuck on. She looked very happy, and proceeded to the point where she had her next gap. The two of them continued with the story, and she was clearly incredibly happy to be able to get to the end.

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