This has been the subject of open debate for a while. The short answer is: It really depends on the person.
If it’s your loved one involved, you know him or her better than anyone. If you think he or she can handle it, then the answer is you probably should share news of the friend’s death. Important considerations include thinking how the news will affect your loved one and whether there will be any benefit to it. You also have to consider how well your loved handles stressful situations.
If the deceased is someone your loved one has seen regularly, then it might be best to share the news. After that, you are still likely to be asked about the person’s whereabouts, due to short-term memory loss. Then, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it to keep repeating news of the death or if it’s time to exercise the right to use “therapeutic fibs.” These are always used to protect the person with dementia.
See how it goes after you tell your loved one about the death and take it from there. If questions persist about the deceased, you can (honestly) say that the person just “isn’t here right now.” Or you can say in an assuring tone that although you’re not sure where the person is, you are sure he or she is OK and in a safe place.
Whether or not to talk about a death also depends on how far Alzheimer’s has progressed. With later stage dementia, it probably isn’t beneficial. Regardless of the stage, if your loved one wasn’t particularly close to or frequently around the deceased, it might not be to your benefit to raise the subject.
The same thought process comes into play if your loved one inquires about his or her parents. Even if the parents have died long ago, your loved one’s long-term memory might be kicking in, bringing them more prominently to mind. Validation is the best strategy to use when this happens. Say, “I know your parents aren’t here now and you miss them, but they are OK and they know where you are.” Then, you can reminisce.
For more information about communicating with a loved one with dementia, please click here to listen to a Jo Huey speak on this very delicate subject. It is a very informative discussion available free as an mp3.