“Mom remembers dad, but has a new boyfriend.”


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Anonymous writes: My mother has been in a memory care center for 2-½ years. She has recently started kissing a fellow resident even though she still recognizes my dad when he comes to visit. Most recently, she has now been found in this other man’s bed twice. My dad and my sister are using humor to deal with the situation but I am heartbroken. I do realize that it is the disease and not my mom making these choices. How do you deal with these situations?

A reader wrote in and asked me this question last week, and I answered it quickly, but wanted to go into more detail in a full blog post. 

The first, and most important thing that we need to deal with is the issue of CONSENT. Consent is a really challenging thing to measure when people have dementia. Honestly, due to the fact that we don’t know exactly what is going on in the brain of someone with dementia (does she think that he is her husband?, etc.) all we can ask ourselves is this: does she seem happy and willing to consent? Does the man in this relationship seem happy and willing to engage with this woman? If the answer is, “Yes, both parties seem happy,” then we can agree that the relationship is consensual. 

Once we get that difficult topic out of the way, we can deal with our own feelings regarding mom’s relationship with a new man. 

First—and, honestly, most importantly—mom is an adult. Mom can do whatever she wants. We might not like it, but she has lived a full life, and she has learned a lot about herself and about relationships. If mom wants to have a relationship with someone, we have to let her do it.

Secondly, I think the “dad and sister” in this situation are handling everything really well. They are using humor to deal with it, and I really think that this is the best way to look at mom’s new relationship. 

Thirdly, we are not ever going to know exactly what is going on in mom’s head. Just because she recognizes dad, doesn’t mean that she doesn’t also think that this other man is dad, as well. Maybe she just likes this guy. Maybe she thinks he’s another version of her husband. Who knows. The point is, we don’t know for sure, but we do know that she likes this man.

While relationships in dementia can be very complicated, the only two things that we need to worry about are consent and our response to the relationship. That is all we can control, and all we should try to control. I have seen some truly beautiful relationships develop between adults in dementia care communities, and they blossom best when all families and parties are on board.

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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of three published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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