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Lost Recognition

Tuesday December 14, 2021

Q: What do I do when my loved one doesn’t recognize me anymore?

One of the many heartbreaking things that caregivers often deal with while caring for a loved one with dementia is when your loved one no longer recognizes the important people in their life.  

For instance, you are caring for your husband with Alzheimer’s, and now, suddenly, he can’t remember your name. Or you are caring for your mom, and she is now referring to you as “that woman.” You are caregiving for your dad, and he thinks that you are his wife. You come home to visit your parents and your mom asks, “Now, who are you?” 

These scenarios can be very upsetting for families. 

Why doesn’t my loved one remember me?   

Am I not important anymore?    

This transition is difficult no matter the relationship – grandparent/grandchild, husband/wife, etc. First and foremost, it is shocking that the person you have known for so long and have such history with, doesn’t remember who you are.  This is also one more sign of a decline. It is one more loss that you must process.   

Why does the person with dementia forget those important people? 

Dementia is cognitive impairment. The brain is not working properly. With a disease like Alzheimer’s, it is often last memories in, first ones out. Grandchildren, children, and friends can be forgotten, while parents and siblings may be remembered. 

Your loved one has likely lost a sense of how old they are. While your husband is 70, he may believe he is 40. He is looking at you wondering who that older woman could be. Maybe his mom? Maybe his grandma? Maybe the housekeeper? After all, you do clean the house a lot.  

If he thinks he is 40, he may think his daughter is his wife. In the dementia brain, relationships get confused. They most likely know you are someone important but may struggle to figure out the relationship. 

So how do you respond? How do you handle this?    

  • Remain calm and respond kindly. While this is disheartening, it will most likely just upset your loved one if you appear hurt.
  • Try not to take it personally. Your loved one is not doing this to hurt you.  The dementia is doing this to them. Your support and understanding is important.
  • Acknowledge the loss. You are in a grieving process. This is one more loss that you are having to face.
  • Try to enter your loved one’s reality. What age and stage of life do they think they are at? You may not be able to get your loved one to remember who you are.
  • Show photos and other reminders. Remind, don’t quiz. Show a picture and say, “Dad, this is me and you that Christmas that Santa brought me a bike.”
  • Give verbal cues. If your loved one is forgetting your name or relationship, give reminders. As you come into the room say, “Hey mom. It’s me, your favorite son, John.”
  • Avoid scolding tones. Your loved one does not need you to get on to her by saying something like, “Now Mary, you know good and well that is your daughter, Stacy!”  Instead, be kind and gracious.
  • If friends or family are coming by to visit, give those people a warning that your loved one may not remember their names or relationship. This way it won’t be such a shock.
  • Let it go. At some point in the disease process, the reminders don’t work anymore. Jogging the memory is unsuccessful. This time can be extra hard, but it’s best for you and your loved one if you accept it and let it go.