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How to Maintain Relationships When a Loved One with Dementia Doesn’t Remember You

Older couple in a deep conversation

When someone you love has dementia, changes in their memory, thinking, language, judgment, and behavior can almost make it seem as if the person you’ve known is no longer present. What’s more, your relationship with your loved one is different, especially if their condition progresses to the point that they don’t remember you. Fortunately, there are ways to cope so you can put your relationship on a new footing.

Understand Dementia

Dementia is a term that covers a broad number of progressive conditions that affect the way the brain works. Alzheimer’s disease is one type of dementia, but there are other types as well, all characterized by problems with memory, cognitive ability and communication that get worse over time. One of the first steps in coping with your changing relationship is to recognize that your loved one’s inability to recognize you is due to these changes in their brain, rather than a reflection of their true feelings for you.

Know That Your Painful Emotions Are Normal

Even if you expected your loved one to eventually not recognize you, it’s painful to experience this change in your relationship. Not only are you mourning the person you once knew, but you may also feel hurt that they no longer know you. It’s even common to feel anger and frustration with your loved one because of their declining abilities. Remorse will likely quickly follow anger and be compounded by feelings of guilt, especially if you find yourself dreading spending time with your family member now.

It’s important to acknowledge to yourself that these feelings are normal and will likely continue to affect you as you cope with your loved one’s declining condition. Taking care of yourself by talking with friends, finding a support group, taking long walks in nature or other restorative acts of self-care can help.

Adjust the Way You Interact

As you can imagine, diminishing cognitive abilities can trigger anxiety and anger in the person with dementia. They  may lose confidence as social abilities decline. There are ways you can approach them that will help you both feel more at ease:

  • Remind your loved one who you are. It may feel strange at first to introduce yourself to someone you share history with, but beginning your interaction by saying your name and explaining your connection can help your family member feel more at ease.
  • Be reassuring and friendly. Interacting with someone whose memory and thinking are declining can be awkward. Looking your loved one in the eye and offering a friendly smile can make both of you feel more comfortable.
  • Let go of the need for mental clarity. It can be hard to accept that your family member is losing touch with reality, but trying to keep them oriented can be frustrating for both of you. Instead, seek common ground. Your mom may not remember you, but she may enjoy singing a favorite song with you. If your wife refers to her long-deceased brother, ask what she remembers about him instead of reminding her that he’s died. Talking about happy memories can help your loved one feel more secure.
  • Start fresh. If your loved one gets agitated during your visit, leave the room for a few minutes. When you come back, begin again with a friendly greeting, such as, “Hi, I’m back. It’s so nice to see you.”

Cultivate Meaningful Connection

Although your family members will seem different, you can still find activities to do together that will help you maintain a meaningful relationship. Here are some ways to enjoy your time together and put your relationship on a positive footing:

  • Look through photos together. Whether you have a box of old photos to thumb through or an organized album with every photo labeled, your loved one will likely enjoy reminiscing about times past.
  • Try children’s activities. Games like Go Fish or jigsaw puzzles and coloring books can make for a fun way to spend time together.
  • Read and sing aloud. Reading poetry or prose or singing favorite songs may soothe or engage your loved one.
  • Watch movies. Sharing a favorite film or TV show can be a fun bonding experience and can uplift your family member’s mood or trigger good memories.
  • Satisfy the senses. Getting outside in lovely weather, listening to music, or giving your loved one a manicure can stimulate their senses and enhance relaxation.

Find Support

Caregiving for someone with dementia can be a lonely and stressful job. It can help to hear stories and tips from people who understand. The House of the Good Shepherd podcast Episode 6 is a conversation about the stages of dementia and the resources and support available at The House. In our assisted living community, we can meet the needs of residents with dementia, helping them live as independently and happily as possible. We also offer respite care, giving caregivers a chance to take a break from their duties knowing their family member is well cared for. Contact us to find out more about how our senior living options or respite care can serve you and your loved one.