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When a Loved One with Alzheimer's Doesn't Recognize You

Watching a loved one move through the stages of Alzheimer's disease is one life's toughest and most heart-breaking challenges. If we had to list examples of emotions by the distress they cause us, at the top of the list would be the experience of watching someone we love experience pain, whether it's physical, psychological or emotional. Next on the list, at least for many caregivers, would be having to live with the fact that a loved one no longer recognizes us for who we are.

I recall asking one of the nurses at the nursing home if my mother-in-law knew who I was. I was aware she couldn't have told anyone my name or my exact purpose in her life. That much was evident. However, I wondered if she knew that I was there to see her. The nurse assured me that my mother-in-law's seeing me step off the elevator as she sat in the common room was a highlight of her day. I was glad of that. I felt my visiting her was important no matter what she "knew," but it was nice to hear those words from the nurse just the same.

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Spouses and adult children of people with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias often have to brace themselves for a time when their loved one no longer recognizes them.

Not Being Recognized Doesn't Mean We're Forgotten

The pain of walking into a room and having one's spouse or parent not recognize us can tear some people apart. Sometimes, adult children especially, will say to me, why visit them? Why go through the pain of sitting there, when they don't even know me?

I'm not a qualified medical person, so I can only give my own thoughts on this situation. What I say to people is that their loved one has not "forgotten them." Even though the person may not indicate in any way that your presence is known, it may well be that the touch of your hand, your voice or even some sense we can't quite quantify will get through to this person, somehow.

Can They Hear Conversation Around Them?

It is believed that people in comas often hear conversation around them. If this is so, how can we know for certain what a person locked in an Alzheimer's fog really does, or doesn't, understand? I believe in touching people, caring lovingly for them, speaking to elders and treating them as functioning human beings, no matter what their condition appears to be. If I've done my best to treat them in this fashion, I know that they will have perceived whatever they are capable of perceiving. Hopefully, at the very least, they perceive that they are loved.

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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