One of the most common questions in the AgingCare.com Alzheimer’s and Dementia Support Group pertains to how aware dementia patients are of their cognitive status. This can pose a bit of a dilemma, because with reduced mental function, there also comes a limited capacity for insight into and acknowledgement of their true condition.

Anosognosia Is Not Denial

Known as anosognosia, this phenomenon differs from the shock and denial that many individuals and families experience following an initial diagnosis. The word anosognosia is composed of three Greek roots, which combine to mean “without knowledge of disease.” Changes in the brain cause individuals with mental illness, brain tumors, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia to believe that there is nothing wrong with them.

A loved one’s lack of awareness of their impairment can be selective or complete, and it can pertain to their memory, general thinking skills, emotions and physical abilities. A dementia patient may experience occasional difficulty with language skills, like word-finding and vocabulary, but they may explain away these situations with a general excuse about forgetfulness or fatigue. Someone who has anosognosia regarding short-term memory problems, like forgetting to bathe, missing appointments, or leaving food on the stove, will typically insist that they do not need help and are fully capable of performing daily activities independently despite clear evidence to the contrary. They may also react with anger when reminded of their mental impairment, which they are fully convinced does not actually exist.

Caregiving and Anosognosia

For dementia caregivers, anosognosia can be more frustrating to deal with than a loved one’s actual lapses in memory. A senior’s abilities are changing before your eyes, but how can you convey that they are incapable of driving, cooking or handling their finances when they don’t understand they are ill? As with most unusual dementia behaviors, learning more about the issue can help you stay calm and find workarounds.

“My mother has anosognosia—something I didn't even know existed until I read an article about it a couple of years ago. Just knowing that she lacks the capability to recognize her deficits does make it easier to work with her sometimes because I can strategize with that in mind.” –caregiverforum1

Some patients are so convinced they’re healthy that they may even refuse medical evaluations, treatments and medications. We are all familiar with the phrase you can’t help those that won’t help themselves. But with dementia, even when someone does not acknowledge the root of their problems or want assistance, intervention of some kind is usually necessary.

Visit the articles below for insights and suggestions from experienced caregivers on how to cope with the complications and lack of awareness that result from anosognosia.