What to Say When a Loved One with Memory Loss Doesn’t Recognize You

Learn how best to comfort and communicate with the person you love.

When a Loved One Doesnt Recognize You

You never forget the first time a parent doesn’t recognize you. The loss is heartbreaking. And it doesn’t get easier each time she can’t remember your name or is convinced you’re her sister.

Why Doesn’t Mom Know Me Anymore?

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia damage the brain. Changes in the brain are the most common reason why your loved one with memory loss doesn’t seem to recognize you. As memory and vision loss progress, the ability to recognize faces and recall names diminishes.

“Unfortunately, it’s going to get to that point for many with a dementia diagnosis,” says Marcie Suppe, Director of Resident Services for Highgate Senior Living. “But even if you know that intellectually, it’s still a shock. It’s hard not take something like that personally.

You might feel hurt and at times you might struggle to be around someone who is there but in the same sense not there. Someone who looks like your mom but doesn’t act like your mom. It’s hard to imagine a more terrible loss than to watch someone you love slip away right in front of your eyes.

No doubt about it: Memory loss will change your relationship. But your loved one is still “in there.” They aren’t changing; the disease is progressing.

“It’s almost like the person with dementia moves backward in time,” Suppe says. “They have a mistaken understanding of where they are in time. That’s part of the damage done to the brain.”

“For example,” Suppe continues, “if I believe I am 25 years old and have a 5-year-old daughter, that’s my mistaken belief. Then this 55-year-old woman walks in the door and says, ‘Hi, Mom.’ Well, my expectation is that my daughter is 5 years old. If I don’t recognize my daughter in that moment, it’s not because I don’t remember her. I’m just lost in a different moment in time. It’s hard for people to understand that they’re not forgotten.”

Even though your mom or dad might not be able to remember you anymore, they can still feel emotions long after memories have vanished. So although your mom may not remember that you stopped by with a warm meal and a hug last night, those actions can have a lasting impact on how she feels from day to day.

That’s why it’s important to become educated about memory loss and learn how best to comfort and communicate with the person you love.

What to Do When Mom Doesn’t Recognize Me

1. Acknowledge the Loss

While it might seem like you are doing what’s best for your loved one, ignoring feelings of sadness and grief instead of coping with an ambiguous loss can do more harm to your relationship than good.

Take time to grieve the relationship you once had. Take time to process your feelings and emotions. Allowing yourself to feel the loss and grief can promote healing, and allow you to find healthy coping mechanisms that will allow you to spend quality time with your loved one, regardless of the lasting effects of the disease.

2. Enter Their World

People with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia often come to live in an altered reality that doesn’t always match ours. Memories can become garbled and create hallucinations, or delusions that don’t make any sense to us, but are as real to your loved ones as ours are to us.

Knowing how to handle this can be tricky. Your instinct might be to correct your loved one. But research shows learning what is behind those feelings, or simply by joining them in their world is often the kindest, most respectful way to handle the beliefs and perceptions that a loved one’s brain creates.

If your loved one keeps referring to you as someone you’re not or insists that you’re not who you say you are, try to meet them where they are right now. For instance, you walk into the house and say, “Hi, Mom, it’s me, your daughter.” Your mom responds with, “But you’re not my daughter.”

“Instead of correcting her, say something like, ‘Ok, tell me about your daughter. What is she like?’” Suppe suggests. “Ask her to tell you about her daughter, what she misses about her, what she looks like. Give her the opportunity to share her memories rather than trying to force the issue. She might even say something nice about you,” Suppe says playfully. “Honestly, then it might not feel so bad.”

3. Practice Improv

The first rule of improvisational comedy is to always say “Yes, and …” And Suppe suggests using this same line of thinking when communicating with a loved one with memory loss.

“If your dad looks out the window and says, ‘Look at the monkeys in the tree outside,’ you might go, ‘No, those are squirrels,’” Suppe says. “Instead, what if you say, ‘Huh, it’s a little early for monkeys isn’t it?’”

The specific words aren’t as important as the simple fact that you’re engaging them in conversation. “It means a lot to them,” Suppe says.

4. Introduce Yourself

One way to get the conversation with your loved one off on the right foot is to get in the habit of introducing yourself.

“I don’t even give them the opportunity to ask me who I am or what I’m there for,” Suppe says. “So, for example, when you walk into the room, say, ‘Hi, Mom, I’m Marcie, your oldest daughter,’ and then keep chatting. Then you’re not putting them on the defensive to try to figure out who you are.”

All of these techniques are based on dementia care expert Teepa Snow’s philosophy called the Positive Approach to Care. The basic idea is to focus not on what’s lost but on what’s left and to concentrate on what can be done rather than what can’t.

To learn more about the Positive Approach to Care and how it’s implemented throughout the memory care program at Highgate Senior Living, download our eBook Life at the Cottage.

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