How can my mother-in-law not know her family, but remembers a girl she baby sat years ago?

3 answers | Last updated: Oct 01, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

Here we go! Well I would like to know, How my mom in law can not remember, her son, or our two children, or me for that matter. we have been living together for 11 months, and we lived ten min away before we moved in with her. We saw her 2, 4, or 5 times a week. She used to baby sit a sweet girl and both families became close, She sat for this child for 10 years, now the child in 39, and has always been like a daughter to her, we considered her family. When Abby, not her real name, calls or comes over my mother in law is excited and will actually have a conversation with her. My in law has dementia late stage, so my husband and I are shocked when she actually talks to Abby, because she will not speak to us! The only thing she says to me, when I ask her "what's up, What are you wondering? is "what am I doing here? I ask her this when I see her starting to get agitated. I tell her she's eating dinner, or watching TV, or whatever it is she's doing at the that moment in time and I tell her that she is home, at her own house. She has no emotional attachment to us at all and she treats us like ghosts, never ever having a conversation with us. It was hard at first because we lover her and in the beginning we would try to explain things to her to make her life and mental state easier for her. Now I no longer try to explain things to her, in detail, it's short and to the point. I work like a nurse would, I change her diapers, bather and feed her, and do all the other stuff that needs to be done and I now do it with out getting gym feelings hurt of letting her moods change mine. I understand that she is gonna act different, for other people then she does with the ones who care for her everyday. I'm never gonna know what she thinks or why she treats us like she does.

Expert Answers

Joanne Koenig Coste is a nationally recognized expert on Alzheimer's care and an outspoken advocate for patient and family care. She is the author of Learning to Speak Alzheimer's. Also, she currently is in private practice as an Alzheimer's family therapist. Ms. Koenig Coste also serves as President of Alzheimer Consulting Associates, implementing state-of-the-art Alzheimer care throughout the United States.

Your last sentence nicely sums up the reality of the situation. Most likely, you may never know what she thinks or why she treats you as she does. It is such a difficult situation to be taking care of someone 24/7 who neither acknowledges who you are or the good care you provide. This must be so sad and frustrating for you. You are doing the right things to interact positively with her by using simple language and not trying to explain things to her. She has already lost the ability to understand explanations no matter how reasonable they may seem. Memory is divided into three parts: long term or remote, short term or recent, and immediate recall. The latter is used when the effected person repeats something immediately after you have said it but it doesn't actually get stored in the memory bank and cannot be recalled just moments later. With AD folks, most of the damage to memory occurs in the part of the brain governing short term memories which fade progressively over the course of the disease until memory of recent events, decade by decade, are no longer stored or accessible. Long term memory stays intact well into the final stages of AD. Names and relationships are generally not recalled and family members and friends may no longer be recognizable as her memory of each is from many years ago when the memory was preserved. This is why she recalls Abby to whom she had an emotional attachment many years ago and may even think of as a daughter. Researchers and clinicians are still unclear as to which life-events will be recalled by an AD patient in later years; it remains a mystery as to why some people and happenings are remembered while others are seemingly gone. Alzheimer's and loss of family recognition is troubling for so many caregivers. There may be times when you feel her behavior is is not. She no longer has the cognitive power to purposefully plan her actions. It is not unusual for an AD person to accurately chat about where they went to grammar school and yet not remember what they had for breakfast today. It sounds to me as if you are doing everything possible to make a comfortable environment for your M-I-L whether she knows you or not. When her words are not making sense, try to feel the emotion she is expressing and respond to it. If she seems agitated, comfort her or offer her something special to eat which refocuses her on something more pleasant. If she appears dejected, express that you feel sad when she's not happy. You might try sharing a photograph album with her or music that she may have enjoyed as a young woman. That is where her best memories lie and you can join her there for a more positive interaction. I wish you well and do remember to take good care of yourself.

Community Answers

Loving nana-northern california answered...

I just went to a seminar on dementia and it was explained to us that older memories of the loved one are stored deep in the brain, where newer memories are nearer the edge of the brain. The diseases like LBD and AD tend to first attack the outer edges of the brain, which explains why short term memories disappear but older memories are preserved with the patient.

It made sense to me and it helped explain my own husbands Lewy Body dementia.

Calamity answered...