Remembering the loved one who has forgotten you

As a person ages, friends and loved ones often stop communicating as much.

Part of the problem is a busy schedule. When I worked in a nursing home ministry in college and then visited my mother-in-law in various facilities, I figured busyness was the primary reason so many residents seemed never to have a visitor.

But now I think perhaps people don’t visit elderly loved ones because they feel it’s futile since the person doesn’t even know them any more.

Dementia is one of the saddest afflictions. It’s heartbreaking when a loved one can’t remember who you are or how you are related.

But I can’t encourage you strongly enough to keep visiting. Why?

Because you remember.

Their biggest need is to know that they are loved and not forgotten. For the few minutes you spend with them, they are receiving personal attention.

We don’t know what they actually remember.

When a loved one can’t process thoughts well, we don’t really know what’s going through their minds. It could be there is a flicker of familiarity, but they can’t express it. Or they might remember, if just for a few moments, that you were there.

Assisted living and nursing home facilities can be lonely places.

Some residents are able-bodied and/or social butterflies, but many sit by themselves. Most of the activities involve bringing the group to the common area rather than doing anything with individuals  Most of these places are overworked and understaffed. We found a few gems in each facility my mother-in-law was in, but too many of the staff were burned out, uncaring, just punching a time card. We observed as they talked to each other over her without ever looking her in the eye or talking directly to her. One aide had eyes glued to the TV as she fed Jim’s mom rather than interacting with her. Can you imagine an existence where most people just handle you or do what’s necessary without a smile or a kind word?

Personal, focused, loving attention is the greatest gift you can give them.

You can’t assume they are well taken-care of.

When you visit a facility and arrange to place your loved one there, you assume the best. The administration sounds competent, the brochures look inviting. But we could tell you dozens of stories from our own experience, not to mention that of others. The residents often can’t speak for themselves. They need advocates to visit them frequently and bring any issues to the management’s attention.

When you do visit, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t ask, “Do you remember . . .” people or situations. John Zeisel calls this “testing” in his book I’m Still Here: A New Philosophy of Alzheimer’s Care. He says such questions just set them up for a test they are sure to fail and can increase anxiety, agitation, and feelings of incompetence.. Sometimes they can remember the distant past more than the recent occurrences, but don’t assume. Just start talking about the person or situation you have in mind. If your loved one remembers, they’ll chime in. Instead of asking, “Do you remember me?” just say who you are. “Hi, Mom! It’s me, Jim, and your grandson son, Jason, and great-grandson, Timothy.” Mention the names but don’t make a big deal about them.
  • “Don’t alter their reality” was the cardinal rule at the nursing home my mother-in-law was in. In our college nursing home ministry, one blind lady spoke as if she lived on a plantation, even encouraging us to pick some flowers. We didn’t know whether to go along or try to bring her back to reality. Now I would know: either go with the flow or try to bring up a different topic of conversation. If they think they are in another state, or their husband is waiting for them at home, or whatever, it only agitates them to say otherwise. When my mother-in-law was in a memory-care unit, we often saw residents get quite upset if they stopped to ask us to take them somewhere, and we said we couldn’t. We learned to say, “I’m just here visiting my mom, but maybe this lady could help you,” and point them to an aide. That was better than saying, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t take you,” and having them get upset, and an aide having to come over and calm them down.
  • Divert or distract rather than arguing. If your loved one starts asking about someone who died, or asks to be taken somewhere they can’t go, or says something that doesn’t make sense, don’t try to “talk sense into them.” Jim’s mom sometimes asked to be taken to her daughter’s house 2,000 miles away. I used to remind her that she had moved to TN. But later on, I’d just say, “We can talk about it when Jim gets home.” She was mostly silent her last two years, but she would still sometimes ask about her sister, who had died long ago. Our caregiver would say something like, “I think she’s still asleep” and then start talking about something else. We tried never to lie to her, but we did redirect the conversation.
  • Have some topics of conversation in mind before you go. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to talk about. Family news is always good. But conversation can sputter after that. This is something I wish I had done better with my mother-in-law. I saw her almost every day, so when she would ask what’s new, sometimes all I could come up with was, “Well . . . I got the laundry done.” She loved news or little interesting tidbits or real-life stories. I wished I had looked for things like that to share with her when I visited. I also wished I had asked her more about her past.
  • Some might be able to play games, put together puzzles, do small crafts. If you have old family photos of people you can’t identity, this is a great time to bring them and ask about them.
  • Be cautious about gifts. Most times, they don’t really need or have room for anything. But if it’s a special occasion and you want to bring something, be aware of their situation. Don’t bring food unless you know they aren’t on any kind of dietary restrictions. And then bring food in a form they can eat (someone sent my mother-in-law a fruit basket, but she had no way to slice or peel any of it. She couldn’t have a knife in her room.) Cut flowers in a vase might be better than a plant no one has time to care for. Some other ideas:

All-occasion greeting cards (if they still send them)
Stationery and stamps (if they can still write)
Pens and pencils
Lotions (some might have skin sensitivities)
Bath items: nice-smelling shampoo, body wash, powder. Avoid bath oils – too slippery
Large-print books, magazines, crossword or word search puzzle books (if   they can still read)
Small individually wrapped chewable candies (if they can have them)
Small packages of cookies (ditto)
Pudding cups
Small throw blankets
Socks (slip-proof, if they are still mobile) and slippers
Magnifying glass
Nice nightgowns or pajamas. (or hospital gowns if they are bedridden. We used this place often.)
Small photo albums with pictures of your family. (Big ones are too heavy.)
Pictures colored by a child

If you have a project-based ministry to the elderly in your congregation, please take the items to the person rather than sending them home with a loved one or dropping them off on the porch. The visit means more than the things.

What if you don’t live near your loved one?

Don’t stop communicating because you don’t think it will do any good. One lady who used to write to my mother-in-law would check with me occasionally to ask if I thought it was still worthwhile. I told her I honestly didn’t know if Jim’s mom would know who she was or would remember the note I read five minutes later, but for those few moments, she knew someone cared enough to communicate with her. We’re more inclined to send texts or Facebook greetings, but it’s worth the time to send a personal note to an elderly person who doesn’t have access to those other venues. Sometimes a FaceTime or Skype call can be set up. One of Jim’s brothers used to do this even after Jim’s mom no longer spoke. She could at least see him and his family and would sometimes wave a finger.

What if your loved one is being cared for by a family member?

It still helps to visit or at least communicate for a number of reasons. Your loved one needs to know you still remember and care for them. And it greatly encourages the one caring for them to have the rest of the family still participating. Caregiving can be weighty and lonely, and the interest and care of the rest of the family can be greatly encouraging. By contrast, it’s immensely saddening to have birthdays and Mother’s Days go by without hearing from anyone, even if the loved one doesn’t know what day it is.

It can be hard to visit an elderly loved one.

It takes time and slowing down. It’s hard to acknowledge the effect of years and to know they’re only going to keep declining. Their might be messy or smelly. My mother-in-law was easy to get along with, but some dementia patients are angry or combative. It might be easier to remember them as they were than see them as they are. Most people’s main regret when a loved one dies is that they didn’t spend more time with them. Do all you can while you can to avoid that regret. Even if they don’t remember you, you remember them. I’m not trying to heap guilt on you; I’m trying to lessen it.

Godly love is about giving and isn’t dependent on what the other can do for us.

They don’t have to remember you in order for you to minister to them. Our blessing them comes from:

1) The example of our Lord, who blesses us every day of our lives even though we can never repay Him.

2) Gratefulness because of all our loved ones did for us.

3) Doing unto others as we would want them to do to us. (Matthew 7:12)

It can be especially hard when the relationship has not been good, when issues have never been resolved and there’s no hope of dealing with them now. Some of my friends have exemplified 2 Corinthians 12:15 with their parents: “ And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved.Loving like Jesus means loving people even when they don’t “deserve” it. Love costs a great deal sometimes. As we pray to love more, we can ask that our “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9) and ask God to “make [us] increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (2 Thessalonians 3:12).

I’d love to hear from you about this topic. What have you found helpful when visiting elderly family members?

(I wrote a series of posts from our experience caring for my mother-in-law called Adventures in Elder Care. If you are in a caregiving season of life, you might find something helpful there. A couple of the posts there most related to this one are Am I Doing Any Good? and It’s Not for Nothing.)

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Global Blogging, Senior Salon, Hearth and Home, Purposeful Faith, Happy Now, InstaEncouragment, Recharge Wednesday,
Worth Beyond Rubies, Share a Link Wednesday, Let’s Have Coffee,
Heart Encouragement, Grace and Truth, Faith on Fire)

52 thoughts on “Remembering the loved one who has forgotten you

  1. Thank you for sharing these good thoughts, Barbara. This post reminds me of my dear mother, who passed away 10 years ago. She suffered from dementia for her last 3 years after she had a stroke. These are all wonderful caregiving tips.

  2. This entire post is filled with helpful suggestions and wisdom. These are all wonderful caregiving tips. The most important thing to remember is to keep on visiting, keep on conversing because you will be the one who remembers. Grateful you shared!

  3. A wonderful post, Barbara. I’ve been there as well and there are lots of things I wish I had done differently when Mom was in the rehab center those last 2 1/2 months of life.

  4. Oh my goodness, Barbara, what lovely, caring, encouraging advice. Dementia is such a tragic disease, and it is so hard to know how to visit someone with it. Everything you have said in this post rings true from my personal experience with family members, and you are so right, it truly is important to stay in touch and visit. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful post with the Hearth and Soul Link Party.

  5. Very helpful! I haven’t yet experienced this with a relative, but I’m sure I’ll get there eventually. The bit about not arguing but distracting, etc. makes a lot of sense. I always feel sad when I visit nursing homes, observing so many older people there all alone. I remember a story from a book I read by the Bush twins. One related that her grandpa, George HW Bush, was sitting at a table with the large extended family. They were all talking and laughing, and because of his declining hearing, he couldn’t participate in most of what was said. He leaned over to his granddaughter and said, “I miss being ‘in the game.’ Enjoy being in the game while you can.” I thought that was so poignant —

  6. Such excellent advice! My in-laws are in their 80s and we’re moving them closer to us so that we can visit more often. So far, neither one suffers from memory loss, but they can both be forgetful about things you just told them.

  7. I am most fortunate, Barbara, that no-one in my family has dementia or memory loss of this sort of significance. We try to make the most of our older family members as you never know how long you will have them with you. My mom is 81 and my aunt 85. Our great granny is 98. We seem them every few weeks.

  8. This is such an important post, Barbara. I just visited an aunt yesterday who didn’t have a clue who I was. 😦 It’s easy to write people off who can no longer remember us, but them remembering us isn’t the point. We need to remember them and give them love. I’m reminded here that I didn’t say who I was yesterday to my aunt; next time I will try to *remember* to do that.

  9. This is a very helpful post. My dad had Alzheimer’s and we learned what worked and what didn’t as time went on. Your suggestions would have made it much easier. Thanks so much for sharing this, there are so many people’s lives touched by those with Alzheimers or various forms of dementia!

  10. In a culture that worships youth and vitality, we NEED these words!
    I remember telling an older friend of mine, many years ago, as she sank into dementia, that even after she had forgotten me, I would remember her.

  11. Barbara, this is SO GOOD!!! I’ve never seen a blog post on this topic and it’s so needed. Thank you for posting.

    We are not there yet (hopefully we’ll never be there) but my parents are both 80. Thankful that they are still pretty healthy, but my dad’s hearing is pretty much completely gone and hearing aids haven’t offered much help. In some small way, I feel like I’ve lost him because it’s so difficult to communicate.

    Thank you for linking up at instaEncouragements!

  12. Barbara, I appreciate all the advice. Just a couple months ago, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Currently my sister is the caregiver and I’m praying daily for them both.

    I loved this line especially, “Godly love is about giving and isn’t dependent on what the other can do for us.” I will remember this when the time comes that she can’t participate in conversation. (I’m still praying for a miracle, though!)

  13. Such a good post, Barbara. My neighbors have had the same experience. His mother was slipping into dementia and he felt the visits were futile and even upsetting for both parties as his mother would sometimes become agitated.

  14. Wonderful advice! It’s great that you are sharing your perspective both from having ministered in a nursing home and from having a relative in one. I have been visiting a nursing home monthly with others from my church to lead a prayer service. When we go around asking each person what they’d like to pray for today, the most common is “my family”–even if they’ve lost track of the details of family members’ names or who’s still alive, the idea of being part of a family is at the top of their minds.

    A good gift for my grandmother when she was in the nursing home was a stuffed toy dog similar in size and appearance to the dogs she’d had earlier in life. She brushed her dog and changed its bow daily, and “taking care of someone” seemed to be good for her health–but this dog was very forgiving on those days when she wasn’t able to care for it, unlike a live pet.

    I vividly remember visiting my great-grandmother when I was 7 years old and she was 95. She couldn’t remember who I was, but she remembered a lot about her childhood! She told me about living in the old country where she slept on top of the brick oven and it was so warm and cozy, about coming to America on a crowded ship and seeing “the lovely lady” holding her torch above the harbor, about living in a place with the bathtub in the kitchen and the toilet down the hall, about dropping out of elementary school to care for her siblings after their mother died, about the public library whose books continued her education: “You can read while you stir the soup.” I treasure those memories. She didn’t have to remember me for me to remember her!

  15. My mother died of dementia a year ago today. Her dying words to me were “I love you”. She was granted a minute of lucidity before she passed holding my hand. It grieved me in the nursing home that people who visited talked about her and not to her. I am sure she understood more than we thought. I thank you for those thoughts you shared. Glenys coming from #SeniSal

  16. My grandmother passed away three years ago this Christmas Eve and we will always miss her. What impressed me so much was the attentiveness that she received from my mother and all of her siblings right up until her last days. It made such an impression on me that I too made sure to visit her every week. She did not suffer from Alzheimers but she did get confused at times. Everyone was so patient with her and always gave her the respect that she deserved. Thank you so much for linking this important post to #globalblogging x

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  18. Barbara – I loved your post! I picked up a few gems to do for my aunt, who is in Kansas. I am saving this to refer back to it when things slow down. I will be sharing it.

    I agree – “they don’t have to remember you in order for you to minister to them.” I used to visit my Grandpa, and he has no idea who we were. It didn’t bother me because I saw the sparkle in his eye when we arrived, even if he didn’t know us. He especially loved seeing my kids.

    Thank you for all of the many ideas and sharing with Grace & Truth Link-Up.


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  20. Thank you Barbara for these very practical tips. I think it’s easy to ask questions of our loved one to see if they remember because we want them to remember. But this is wise insight that it’s only testing them and can raise their anxiety level. And I like the idea about diverting and not arguing by trying to “talk sense into them.” The bottome line is: we are the ones who remember and how we interact with our loved one who struggles with memory makes all the difference in the world to them and US.

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  24. I just found this and read it – what wonderful words of encouragement and suggestions for those of us with a parent who has dementia/Alzheimer’s. I live almost 3,000 miles from my mom who’s now in memory care after a recent fall. She’s 100 and has dementia and macular degeneration. I saw her just as COVID hit the US. I’m at an age with health issues, as is my husband, and travel isn’t really possible right now. She can no longer talk on the phone or really converse. Fortunately, my brother lives nearby and is able to see her and keep in touch with Hospice caregivers and the nurse.

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