Dear Prudence

Help! The Old, Racist Woman I Take Care of Says the Most Awful Things.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

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Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,
I’m a live-in caregiver for an old woman who has (relatively mild) dementia. Here’s my problem: She’s racist, and I don’t know what I should do to address it. We are both white, and I feel like I should be calling her out, but I also don’t know if I’m actually doing any good when I do so. My responses so far have been uncomfortable silence, a quick explanation of why something she’s said is factually incorrect, or just stating that I disagree, but …I don’t know. Is there a more effective way to address this?
—Dementia Doesn’t Excuse Racism

Dear Dementia,

This is tough because, as many readers pointed out, you’re very unlikely to change this woman. Or even get her to improve for an entire afternoon. That’s just how this illness works. And you have to live with her. I found that extremely depressing!

But some of the responses helped me realize, doing the right thing here doesn’t need to achieve changing her into a person who doesn’t have racist thoughts or say racist things. Instead, you can focus on being the kind of person you want to be in this situation. One important part of that can be minimizing the way her remarks affect others. When there are other household employees around, or when you take her to doctor’s appointments or are at the grocery store with her, you can express disagreement and correct her—not so much for her benefit, but for the benefit of those who might be listening. You can even briefly, but sincerely, apologize to them for what they had to hear.

LW should absolutely have a plan in place for every time that the patient is going to be encountering others where her words/actions could affect more than just the LW (e.g. doctor’s appointments or other outings). —@Edianter1

Sometimes saying something in that situation is less about the person you are saying it to and more about the people who may be listening in. My take? Say, “I don’t agree and times have changed!” Or offer a gentle and thoughtful counter to whatever this old lady is saying. I would not presume that she can’t change, but I would not expect to change anybody who is older—especially someone who has dementia. But the effort is good for society at large. So many people listening who can learn so many lessons. —@iproposethis

I have a (non-white) elderly family member with dementia who says racist things. Approach has been to focus on minimizing harm to others. If she says something racist to a nurse, apologize to the nurse. If there’s a child around, explain to them that it’s wrong. —@PorterValdez

Remember it’s not just other people whose feeling and experiences matter. Yours do too. Even though you’re white, it’s hard to hear hateful things. It’s difficult to be a person who hears hateful things and doesn’t challenge them. That could really take a toll on you and how you feel about yourself. So, when it’s just the two of you, still briefly challenge or correct her.

It’s not about changing an old woman’s mind in order to create a more just (and verdant) world. It’s about setting clear boundaries in an intimate situation. That’s a routine part of caregiving. Otherwise, DDER’s frustration will deepen and lead to burnout. —@IdUnchained

You can’t change the person’s thoughts at this end stage, but you can control your reaction and how that time is spent with the person. —@Desarrayed

On a day-to-day basis LW should keep doing what they’re doing: respond in the moment by ignoring, quickly debunking, or disagreeing. The goal should be to get through the day with as little unpleasantness as possible for LW while also providing for the patient’s needs. —@Edianter1

“You can’t say that. It’s not okay. Don’t say things like that in front of me.” And change the subject. At this point, you aren’t going to change her mind or personality, no matter how much education you try to give. But you can shut it down so you don’t have to hear it. —@NYCJessa

I agree with those who suggested a short simple script that doesn’t drain you and doesn’t require you to spend a lot of energy engaging with her. Some additional ideas:

“That sounds like a mean thing to say about people you don’t know.” —@eileenlynnedorn

“We don’t talk about others like that, it’s not kind” or “I’m not going to listen to you talk about people like that.” 

 Then either walk away (if able) or redirect her “Oh, look—there’s a blue bird at the tree!” —@KariJayZee

Pick one or two lines that feel right, and deploy them as often as needed.

Finally, I’ll add: I hope you’re on the lookout for new jobs. I don’t know how much money you make, but I know you don’t get paid enough to deal with this.

Classic Prudie

I love my wife, but she plays the same two to three Taylor Swift songs at a high volume every morning (and sometimes at night). I go out of my way to avoid playing music that I know she dislikes around her. But Swift is immune from complaints. The same songs have played on loop for months now.