Why “remember?” doesn’t work

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Very often I’ll watch caregivers interact with their loved ones who have dementia. And, very often, I’ll hear them repeat this phrase: “Remember, I told you that…?”

It’s a real pet peeve of mine. Your loved one with dementia doesn’t remember.

What happens when you ask them…

“Do you remember what you had for breakfast?”

“Don’t you remember, I just told you I was leaving at 4:00?”

“Don’t you remember, you fell last week, that’s why I can’t let you walk around.”

I guarantee that they’ll start to get upset. You can imagine that you’d probably get upset, too, if someone was constantly reminding you that you didn’t remember something. 

It’s already probably pretty annoying when your spouse says to you, “Don’t you remember, I told you we had plans that day?” Or your child says to you, “Remember, you were supposed to call me earlier today?” It’s irritating, because it makes you feel dumb for forgetting or getting mixed up.

The same thing happens when we do this to people with dementia.

Trying to get someone with dementia to look back into their memory bank and recall what you just talked about, what they had for breakfast, or when next week’s plans hold is not useful. Oftentimes, the information isn’t there to begin with. Sometimes, the information is there, but dementia has impaired their ability to retrieve it.

The only time that you should use the word “remember” in dementia care is when you’re talking about the distant past (like over 20 years ago). Then, your loved one probably will be able to recall what you’re talking about.

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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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