By Lauren Mahakian Contributing writer. Originally published in PV News on 2/10/2021


I’m just settling into an easy chair in a private room with two clients. I open with a question, “Marjorie, do you know who I am?”

“No,” she replies without hesitation. “But you’re a friend of Jack’s, right?”

“Do you know who this is?” I ask, gesturing to her husband seated next to me.

“Not really, but I know he’s important.” Touching her hands to her heart, she adds, “He’s with me.”

Jeff, her husband of more than sixty years, has no reaction. His Alzheimer’s disease is even more advanced than Marjorie’s. He similarly doesn’t recognize his bride, despite waking up with her for most of his adult life until just years ago when they moved to this beautiful memory care community.

While it’s a bit unusual for two spouses to be simultaneously affected by Alzheimer’s disease, forgetting names and faces is fairly common and worsens with time. Depending on how and where the brain is affected, recognizing faces and recalling names, events and other important facts can be impaired.

It’s natural for loved ones to be put off when this happens. I can’t tell you how often I’ve explained that the disease doesn’t discriminate between memories.

In Marjorie’s case, for example, she remembers she has a son named Jack. She even correctly recalls she has three sons, but Jack is the only name that comes to her. Showing her current photos, she does not recognize any of her sons. However, she lights up when shown photos of them as young boys.

“Jack was always into mischief,” she remarks.

In many cases, it’s also possible that memories of who we are, based on what we look like today, are missing. Short-term memory is usually one of the first things affected, and few of us really look like we did ten years ago.

Long-term memory however is often very much intact.

In Marjorie’s case, for example, she actually remembers her husband. Her disability prevents her from recalling his name or recognizing him as the man in the room. Shown photos of them together in younger years brings the same smile as photos of her sons.

When I counsel people facing this situation, I emphasize the importance of positivity in relationships with loved ones. When our loved one fails to recognize us, it doesn’t mean they don’t remember us. They may be able to recall good times or bad, or even describe events we’ve long forgotten. We need to call these wins and carry them in our hearts.

Becoming frustrated with Mom or Dad, sister or brother, or our significant other is counterproductive. Instead, I suggest a course of deliberate action with three major components.

First, It’s important to be and stay actively involved in your loved one’s life. If possible, see them often.

The pandemic has complicated this, to be sure, but it remains important. Video chat, possibly facilitated by staff within communities or helpful neighbors, can be an effective substitute. Because short-term memory is likely affected, this can help with periodic reminders of who we are and what we look like.

Second, We need to show our loved ones that we care.

Their short-term memory may be absent, but they continue to have feelings and those can lead to depression and loneliness. Touch is important and, sadly, one of the biggest losses during this pandemic. If that’s not an option, we can still remind our loved ones that we care. This includes gentle redirection when they don’t recall something that we expected them to remember. Reminding them our name and relationship is usually welcome, and far better than the common accusation, “You don’t remember?”

Finally, Spend time reminiscing.

Long-term memory is often much more intact than we realize. Find out by talking about times from long ago. Play music from the time and share photos. Some people go so far as to create timelines using photos to help loved ones visualize the progression of time from memorable periods to the present. I say, whatever works is what each of us should do.

In the end, we should be comforted by the time we spend with our loved ones, not frustrated by it. Make the most of what time they have left even if they no longer recognize us.

Let’s make sure it’s as enjoyable for us as we want it to be for them.

Lauren Mahakian is a certified care manager. Check out her free podcast, Unlocking the Doors of Dementia™ with Lauren and Free Support Groups on Zoom.

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