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What to Do When a Person With Dementia Doesn’t Remember You

Dementia is a slow, progressive and heartbreaking disease, and its effects aren’t only felt by the person with dementia. Family and friends also suffer from this painful disease. They watch helplessly while the person they care about  struggles with physical pain and loss of memory, language, and other vital life skills  which is why, when your loved one lives with dementia, you live with it too.

And possibly one of the most emotionally wrenching parts of loving someone with dementia is  when they no longer remember who you are. It may be your parent, your grandparent or your spouse. It may be someone who’s known you since you were a baby, or it may be the cousin you’ve called your best friend since you were toddlers.

Suddenly, they don’t know your name, your face, your history, your stories. They simply no longer recognize you. It’s as if you’ve been erased from their mind. That’s the merciless thief known as dementia.

But you haven’t been forgotten. You can connect  and reconnect in a meaningful way with your loved one who has dementia.

Senior Receiving a Hug From a Loved One

How to help someone with dementia remember

Forgetting family members or not recognizing familiar people isn’t necessarily the hallmark of all types of dementia. It’s actually more common in Alzheimer’s disease, and much more rare in vascular dementia, a form of dementia that occurs when the brain is damaged due to blood supply problems.

But for many forms of dementia, memory loss is one of the first signals something is wrong. An early indicator is forgetting recent events, even though memories from long ago are often crystal clear.

There’s an expression for that: “First in, last out.” It means that the first memories you make  long-term memories from childhood or young adulthood are the last to fade. The reverse is also true: The last memories made  those from later in life, or more recent information like what was for dinner last night  is the first out.

It may be easier for those with dementia to relive memories from when they were younger, so they expect grown-up children to be kids again, or they think their deceased parents are still alive. This is significant because the person with dementia may truly remember you when they see you, but they may be expecting to see a younger version of you. 

There are some things you can do to maintain your connection and help someone with dementia remember

  • Put up photos around the house, or create a photo album showing seminal moments in the person’s life, like weddings, births, anniversaries and graduations. In these photos, try to show the progression of time so they can  see you and themselves when they were younger. Also try to show what everyone looks like in the present day. These visual cues can help prompt memories but remind the person who’s who in the present day.
  • The sense of smell is the sense most tied to memories. It’s called the Proust effect because of how close the amygdala, the almond-shaped brain structure that processes sensory information, and the hippocampus, the area responsible for storing episodic memories for later access, sit together in the brain. Use something scented like a soap, shampoo or aftershave that reminds the person of you. If your loved one associates cookies with your grandchildren, bake them before a visit. Encourage visitors to use a cologne or perfume your loved one might associate with them.
  • Introduce activities or hobbies that your loved one with dementia once enjoyed, like listening to familiar music, watching favorite movies, drawing, sketching or painting pictures, arranging flowers, or doing jigsaw puzzles.

Senior Walking With Family Member Through The Park

What to do if someone with dementia isn’t living in the present

As memories, time and dates begin to blur into one another, the person with dementia may become confused and struggle with recognizing the present. They may think they’re back in a moment from their childhood, or believe an adult child is their parent.

Though it may not seem like it, this is an opportunity to connect and communicate with your loved one. You can join them in their reality instead of trying to get them to be present in yours.

 Try entering their world. If your loved one with dementia thinks you’re their mother, ask them questions about their mom: where she went to school, what she did in her career, what she was like as a mom, what some favorite memories of her were. If something triggers a memory from their childhood, listen attentively and respond respectfully. It’s called validation therapy, and it can be a wonderful way to connect. 

How to communicate with someone with dementia

Memories are not the only things lost to dementia. Language and communication skills are also affected. Fortunately, there are ways to change your style of communication with your loved one as their disease progresses. It requires understanding, patience, and good listening skills as someone moves through the early, middle and late stages. Here are some tips for successfully communicating in the middle stages of dementia, as recommended by the Alzheimer’s Association:

  • Speak slowly and clearly, and maintain eye contact
  • Give the person time to respond after you finish speaking, so they can think of what to say
  • Ask just one question at a time, and ask yes or no questions. Instead of asking, “What would you like to drink? Would you prefer coffee, tea, milk or water?” ask, “Would you like some water?”
  • Offer step-by-step instructions for tasks, offer visual cues, and demonstrate a task to assist them
  • Try writing notes if spoken words are confusing
  • Try to avoid arguing, correcting or criticizing – instead, try to ask clarifying questions 

Consider joining a dementia support group

Providing care or supporting a loved one with dementia can be an overwhelming job for anyone. Caregivers of people with dementia face higher levels of burnout, depression, and a lower quality of life. Caregivers also report negative effects on their own physical health as they care for someone with dementia whose health declines.

There are resources to turn to for support. The website lists the top seven dementia support groups for 2021, and the Alzheimer’s Association offers everything from hotlines and online resources to local support groups available in your area.

When it’s time for memory care

There are no easy answers when it comes to caring for someone with dementia. Possibly the hardest question to answer is, “When is it too much for me to manage by myself?”

If you’re agonizing over the answer, we can help. Memory care at The Ridge is designed for residents with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Residents have the comforts of home in a soothing setting, with a host of services, activities and amenities designed for them.

We’d be honored to care for your loved one with dementia. Contact us to schedule a tour or learn more about The Ridge Senior Living.