Mom can't remember who her husband is, what can I do to improve this situation?

2 answers | Last updated: Sep 23, 2016
Heartbroken child asked...

There are so many emotions that caregivers feel, including guilt. My Mom has Alzheimers and even though Dad is her primary caregiver, I am involved quite a bit, hoping to help and ensure that someone looks after Dad as well. I love my parents so much and it hurts to see them go through this. One thing I am struggling with so badly is that Mom doesn't always realize that Dad is my Dad, her husband of 55 years. She has days where she is so confused about who he is, she even seems distrusting and at times a little frightened; she has completely forgotten her home of 30 plus years where they still reside and always wants to go home, wherever that might be in her mind. It is so hard to comfort and reassure her that Dad is who he is, that home is her home, and that she is safe. She knows at times that her mind is fading and she gets scared. Can anyone offer me suggestions on how I can handle things with this differently?

Expert Answers

Brenda Avadian, brings knowledge, hope, and joy to family caregivers for loved ones with Alzheimer's and dementia. She cared for her father with Alzheimer's and helps families one-on-one and in groups. She is the author of eight books, including the pioneering memoir "Where's my shoes?" My Father's Walk through Alzheimer's and the Finding the JOY in Alzheimer's series. She presents vivid, compelling, and funny keynotes to both professional and family caregiving audiences.

The gentle way in which you describe your mom's Alzheimer's and forgetting relationships is like a loving parent of a frightened child. Your mom has become a frightened child during her lucid moments of awareness that her memory is fading. This is scary for anyone!

The best ways to help your mom and your dad is to support them with your words of comfort, with patience, repetition, patience, kindness, and patience. Yes, lots of patience.

You raise two important issues.

1. Mom wants to go home.

2. Mom doesn't recognize her husband.

Loved ones with dementia may say, "I want to go home," because they feel like a stranger in their own home. They're searching for a time when they felt secure and comforted, usually by their own parents.

It's not that you and your dad don't provide her a safe and comfortable place; it's that Alzheimer's causes "blind spots" in her memory. She may no longer recognize those she loves. She may feel she's in unfamiliar surroundings. Again, this is scary!

Dr. James Galvin, Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at New York University's Medical Center, suggests using a form of Reminiscence Therapy"”helping your mom remember by sharing old photos, for example. Caution: If these cause discomfort and greater confusion, find something else that comforts her.

This is where the patience comes in. Meet her where she's at"”in her reality. Ask her what she's feeling, thinking, or seeing. Help her to reminisce. If you accidentally approach a painful topic"”for example, reminding her that her own parents are no longer living, divert the topic. Recall those happy memories she used to share of her own childhood. "Tell me about the time when ...." Sometimes, you can even help her shift focus with a bowl of ice cream. Or take a drive and tell her you're taking her home. (This diversion actually works at times.)

The best ways you can help is to be patient while being there for your mom and dad, comforting them, and helping your mom feel she is safe.

This is why I call so many of you who now walk this road: heroic caregivers.

For more information read: When Someone with Dementia Says, "I Want to Go Home"

Community Answers

Stumper answered...

Hafa Adai Heartbroken Child, I am the dad in a case similar to yours. On our last visit to her doctor my wonderful wife of 38 years did not know my name! She made a joke of it and began to laugh, I did too. If I did not I would have cried. The advise given by Ms. Avadian is excellent. In our case for now she still knows that I am her husband. In the endless notes she writes she refers to me in her native language as Papa. Before my wife started showing symptoms of dementia the patience I had could be measured with a thimble. I have developed a level of patience that even I did not know I was capable of. Please accept my thanks for writing in. I cannot see the future but something tells be you have shown some of it to me. Stumper