Two months after my father-in-law's passing, my mother-in-law with dementia no longer recognizes my wife. What could have triggered this?

4 answers | Last updated: Feb 15, 2015
A fellow caregiver asked...

My mother-in-law, 88, with dementia, no longer remembers her daughter, my wife. My wife is the youngest of four children, three boys and her. Her mother claims she never had a daughter. She used to recognize her just two months ago. She still recognizes her sons. My father-in-law passed away two months ago and we were wondering if this could've triggered something. Do you have any information on this subject of her suddenly not recognizing daughter? Thank you!

Expert Answers

Paula Spencer Scott, contributing editor, is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's. A Met Life Foundation Journalists in Aging fellow, she writes extensively about health and caregiving; four of her family members have had dementia.

No longer being recognized is one of the most painful effects of Alzheimer's and dementia for family members. It's impossible to say exactly what caused this new development, but stress and stressful events are known to worsen dementia. Your father-in-law's death was a major stressor for your mother-in-law. She faced the loss of a life partner, the loss of companionship and probably the loss of certain routines in her life. Alzheimer's is a progressive disease and the inability to recognized loved ones, or to confuse them with others, is a common effect later in the disease process. She may recognize your wife on some days but not others. Although it's hard, your wife shouldn't take this shift personally; it's the disease process -- compounded by grief and confusion -- that's likely at work here.

Community Answers

Barbara k answered...

My heart goes out to your wife and you. It is so hard to have someone you love forget you and so many wonderful memories in their life. My mom is 89 and realy showed signs of dementia after my dad passed away. Sometimes she thinks that I am a sister or cousin and then there are days that she remembers who I am. I just try to remind her of the wonderful memories we have had in our lives and thank her for what she and my dad did for me. Why I cherish what they both did for me. She was throwing away old pictures because she no longer remembered the people so I made an album of the high lights and people for her. It showed pictures of my brother and I throughout her life as well as other people. I also wrote the names of people special to her and listed when they were born and when they died if that was the case. She still forgets but she then knows why she hasn't heard from her parents for a long time. It is the most painful part of the dementia for me. It is certainly a long goodbye and very painful. Thinking of you both.

Frena answered...

So sorry to hear about your family's loss. in my support group, we often hear from caregivers who say that the spouse left alone by the death of their partner soon exhibits deeper signs of dementia. Often, I suspect, that is because their partner has shielded them from others knowing the real extent of their condition. It becomes apparent when family members are much more in their company. But i'm sure too that the emotional loss and the life changes are a a huge blow. dementia always gets worse when other factors occur -- losses, other negative events, maybe health issues such as minor strokes. i'd certainly recommend you have her doctor check her out -- things like small strokes, urinary tract infections, undiagnosed pains they can't communicate -- these all cause a downturn in dementia conditions. so it's worth the doctor time to make sure. if it's only meotional shock, she may gradually improve a little, though probably not fully. you know, short-term memory loss is due to dementia so she isn't forgetting you for any other reason. and you haven't forgotten her and that she needs your love -- so, there's that. to know more about dementia, take a look at my newest book, "Speaking Dementia" by Frena Gray-Davidson , available on you can also read inside it for free and i deal with many of these kinds of questions in a cheerful practical way that is not depressing, though i say it myself!

A fellow caregiver answered...

Hi - my Mum has vascular dementia which has suddenly taken a turn, where she doesnt recognise her house or my Dad in the evening/night and early morning. During the day she does. They have lived in the same house for nearly 50 years so I thought this wouldnt happen and not so suddenly. After looking at various websites regarding this I am now informed that vascular dementia occurs in a stepwise fashion ie the person can be at the same level for quite some time and then it suddenly takes a dip. Maybe this is what has happened? The disorientation occurs especially at night. Look at what time of day you visit. Try midday rather than morning or evening? Hope this helps x oh the comment from other person re urine infection is good advice too, this could be possibility. This was not my Mums case though unfortunately.