Are false memories common in Alzheimer's?

Caregiving wife asked...

My husband is in transition from early- to mid-stage Alzheimer's. Last week, his mind manufactured a fictitious "memory" that really upset him. We worked through it and he's ok with it now, but I'm wondering if this is common in Alz. No one I've talked to has had this happen to their loved one with Alz. Is it possible his mind could create more false memories in the months / years to come?

Expert Answer

Jytte Lokvig, PhD, coaches families and professional caregivers and designs life-enrichment programs and activities for patients with Alzheimer's disease and related dementia. Her workshops and seminars help caregivers and families create a healthy environment based on dignity and humor. She is the author of Alzheimer's A to Z: A Quick-Reference Guide.

False memories are pretty common in people with Alzheimer's. As a person's memory fades and becomes increasingly more fractured, he's more easily influenced by what he hears around him. His "false" memories may also be a mixture of fragments of his actual memories and stories he has come across in the past, possibly going back to his childhood.

Your husband's "false" memory could have been triggered by a television show or a casual remark that he overheard. Something likely felt really familiar, so he subconsciously adopted it as his own story. This time you were able to convince him that it had never happened, but there soon may come a time when you're not able to persuade him that his "memory" is his imagination going wild. At that point please remember not to disagree with him or correct him. Both will work against you and you'll only manage to upset him unnecessarily.

It's important for us to realize that these new versions of memories are absolutely real to our loved ones. If they're happy and positive stories, we can go with the flow. If they are scary or disturbing we'll want to acknowledge and then use a loving lie to help him feel safe again.

Case in point: If he has a "nightmare" memory, listen to his story and help him find solutions without denying the veracity. Example: He tells you that he was carjacked at gunpoint and they are going to come back for him (inspired by a TV show, no doubt.) His body language tells you that he's firmly convinced that this happened and he's scared. In this case you can help him by pretending to place a phone call to the police. You then "report" back to him that the police have set up guards down the street and they already have the alert out on the perpetrator. As soon as he has calmed down from his panic, offer him a diversion that has nothing to do with memories, guns, cars, or cops - maybe ice-cream?

People at the later stages of Alzheimer's have difficulty distinguishing reality from fiction on television. You might want to monitor his television viewing and eliminate shows that may trigger false memories.

Research tells us that we all indulge in false memories to some degree. Several studies have shown that our memories are fluid, changing over time; whenever we recall something, it's influenced by the circumstances of the moment, so when we "put it away again" it has changed a tiny bit.

Many memory-impaired acquaintances of mine make up stories of experiences that have absolutely no correlation to their actual lives. Many of these tales are fascinating and impressive and can brighten the day of their listeners.

When a friend of mine was in his forties, he was the spitting image of a famous movie star, when he was at that age. He was frequently stopped by autograph seekers, but being an honest person, he would remind them that the star had passed away more than a decade before. It dawned on him that he was disappointing all these people, so he started signing for the long-departed star and they walked away happy. He'd made their day by giving them their own good story.