When Your Parent Forgets Who You Are

Photos can help Alzheimer's patients remember loved ones.On your last visit, Mom seemed kind of down so you’re determined to cheer her up today. You open the door to her room. She looks up with a smile that reminds you of the days you’d run home from school with a 100 on your spelling test. She rises and gives you a big hug. “Ella, I am so glad to see you. I was beginning to think you’d forgotten all about me.”

She’s showing more enthusiasm than she has in weeks. So why is your stomach in free fall, and your heart pounding to beat the band? It’s because your name is Barbara. Ella is Mom’s older sister who died four years ago. What do you do? You want to keep her spirits up, but you don’t feel it’s right to play along.

Mistaking children for siblings or other loved ones is not uncommon in Alzheimer’s patients. Alzheimer’s patients lose short term memory but not their recall of the past. You look after her interests. You make sure everything’s going well. You’re her protector, just like big sister Ella used to be. Seeing you may have caused a cross wire.

When Mom recalls her long ago, it’s like she’s living in a dream. Now you’re here but the dream remains. She’s made you a part of it. You want to wake her up, but gently.

There are several things you can do. But first and foremost, do not take offense. Think of her misrecognition as a compliment. She’s connecting you with someone she loves. Secondly, do not argue with her. Don’t make her see. Help her see.

Listen to her, let her say what she has to say, then try to re-direct her focus. Switch the topic. A change of scenery may help. Suggest going for a walk. Address her by name – Mom. Hearing that one word may be all it takes, but it may not always work. It’s in both of your interests to try to prevent this from happening again. Here’s a suggestion you may want to try. This may even be fun – for both of you.

First, gather up all the old photos you have at home. Scour the basement or the attic. What you want is a time line of Mom’s life: as a young mom, with you and all your siblings, and on through all the stages of the family’s life If you’re lucky you can extend it even further back, with photos of Mom when she was a child – with Aunt Ella. This may keep her in the present and if nothing else, will be an emotional bonding experience for you both.

Next, gather some present time photos. You, Mom, your siblings, the grandkids, if they visit. That’s all you need. You don’t want to confuse her or you’ll be back where you began. Bring some cute labels. Make it a project. Label each photo, and create a timeline from past to present. This may help to trigger mom’s memory about who you are, by connecting an image of you from the past with what you look like now. Hang the timeline in a prominent place in her room.

Finally, you don’t want to go down this path again, so next time you visit, identify yourself – face to face. “Hi Mom! It’s your daughter Barbara.” If mom has a favorite nickname for you, refer to yourself that way.

If you can keep her in the present, there’s no need to bring her back.