The man who mistook his wife for…another woman

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“You’d better let me in her room,” Bill said sternly to the nurse outside the door. “That’s my wife in there.”

The nurse was giving Bill a hard time. “That’s not your wife,” she argued back. Of course, this made Bill even more angry. “How would you know what my wife looks like!” he demanded.

Indeed, that was not Bill’s wife in the room next to his. In fact, Bill’s wife was still alive and visited him often. When Bill’s wife came by to visit, he greeted her kindly. “This is my wife,” he’d tell people, smiling. When she left, his wife was living next door to him. 

Bill had, essentially, created a duplicate copy of his wife. Really, the two women looked nothing alike. With dementia, though, often all you need is one defining characteristic that two people share for confusion to happen; for example, both these women were very thin—and that was it. 

What I see, more often than not, is that residents with dementia will create duplicate copies of their spouses. It does make some sense: if they are used to seeing a spouse every day (even if that person died years earlier) they now see a new person every day, often right next door. Often, too, that other resident believes that they are married, as well. I’ve seen numerous “couples” spring up, based out of the fact that both people think the other person is their significant other.

I intercepted the drama happening outside Bill’s door. Steering him away from this argumentative nurse, I touched Bill’s shoulder. “Hey, Bill,” I said. “Why don’t we wait over here for your wife?” I guided him to a nearby sitting area. “Thank you,” he sighed. “That’s a good idea.”

We waited for his “wife” to come out of her room, and they walked down the hallway together, hand in hand, until his real wife showed up.

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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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