Watching someone you love move through the stages of dementia can be very difficult, but often one of the most heartbreaking symptoms is when the person with dementia stops recognizing important people in their lives like partners, family or friends. This confusion can come with anxiety, delusions, paranoia and aggression and can be very upsetting for everyone. If someone you love has forgotten your name, their relationship to you or who you are entirely, here are some tips to help you manage this loss while also keeping your connection with your loved one strong:
Take time to grieve. It is natural to experience deep sadness, anger and frustration when someone you have made a lifetime of memories with no longer knows who you are. Allow yourself to feel these big emotions and take time to grieve the fact that your relationship has changed forever. After acknowledging this loss, try to remember that even though the person with dementia can’t always place you, a familiar face will help them feel safe and supported.
Be patient. It’s a common reaction to try to make the person with dementia remember you in an effort to bring back the memories that you cherish. Unfortunately, testing them or waiting for your loved one to figure out who you are can cause more confusion and feelings of shame and guilt. Instead, introduce yourself immediately and remind them of your connection. “Hi Mom, I’m your daughter Lena and this is your grandson Charlie.” Similarly, if they keep mixing you up with someone else, avoid constantly correcting their mistake and try asking them to share memories about that person.
Don’t take memory loss personally. Even though we logically understand that memory changes with dementia are caused by damage to the brain, it can be hard to not take it personally when someone you love forgets who you are. You may even find yourself questioning if your relationship was somehow less significant if they remember a sibling or recognize another family member during a sudden moment of awareness. Keep reminding yourself that this isn’t personal—it’s a disease.
Try memory activities. Old photos and videos are great ways to bring back happy memories for you and your loved one and can help make connections between the past and the present. Dementia patients typically remember more from years ago than from the recent past, and sometimes old memories can help to trigger current events too. It is important to recognize that this is unlikely to jog their memory and make them remember you again, but revisiting the past and can be uplifting for both of you.
Find connection in other ways. Even as their memory fades, your loved one will remember how you made them feel. Continue to show them affection, give them a manicure or pedicure, listen to music, watch a movie, go for a walk, arrange flowers, do a jigsaw puzzle or cook a delicious meal. Spending time together will bring both of you joy and create positive emotional memories.
Get help. If your loved one’s inability to recognize others is making them increasingly anxious, distressed or paranoid, it’s a good idea to touch base with a health professional to confirm that there isn’t another reason for their memory loss. In some cases it might be caused by infection, medication issues or constipation. Otherwise, if this is a natural progression of their disease, there may be medications and treatment available to improve their quality of life.
Memories mean so much and the ones that we share with the people closest to us become a piece of our identity. Even though your loved one does not recognize you, it does not mean that you are forgotten. They will appreciate your love, support and time together even if they can’t show it in the way that they used to.