Caring Currents

Forgetting Faces: What It's Like to No Longer Be Recognized by Your Dad

Last updated: Oct 20, 2009

Medad9.09

What could be more elementally human than recognizing people -- the loved ones who feature in all your family memories, the friends you wave to on the street, the special face you wake up to every morning? I can't imagine what it must it feel like when Alzheimer's or another dementia turns those once-familiar faces into blanks.

But I well know about being on the receiving end of a blank stare. I've experienced the strange sensation of not being recognized by your own parent.

Intellectually, you understand the day might come. You know it's not unusual that recognizing people will become a challenge for someone with later-stage dementia. But the first time you're called by another name, it jolts. The gulf between you seems to widen.

The first time Dad introduced me as his "sister," my heart sank. It was a confirmation of what I'd long suspected, that he only vaguely got who I was. He seems to register me as family (as opposed to a total stranger), but can't quite place me. He definitely has no idea where I live, how many children I have, or what I do. I can't remember the last time he used my name. (Except to ask me, "Did you see what Paula wrote in this magazine?")

It sounds horrible to put into words, but the experience has made me feel more detached from him. I still adore him and treat him exactly the same. But he feels more "kidnapped." Each visit, I brace for worse. Last week, he mistook my sister-in-law, his primary caregiver whom he sees all the time, for a doctor or a nurse.

Little wonder I've become very interested in this phenomenon. I can't imagine what the experience of losing this connection to a spouse must be like. Here's what some others have told me about their experiences:

Others' impressions of being "forgotten":

  • From a wife: "I just pretend like he still knows me. The thing is, every once in awhile he clicks back in, and I know he knows me."

  • From a son "It used to bother me a lot when my mother would call me by my brother's name, but now I just ignore it. I figure I still recognize her and that's all that matters."

  • From a daughter: "I can't bear it, so when I visit I say who I am right away, so I don't have to be asked. That way I can go a whole visit pretending that I'm remembered."

  • From another daughter: "He thinks I'm my mother, who's been dead for several years. I correct him and correct him "“ I can't help it, and it seems cruel to pretend to be my late mother. But it's hard on me."

  • From another wife: "I've never been lonelier in my life."

If recognizing people has become a problem for your loved one and you've been forgotten, I'd love to hear what it felt like and how you deal with it.