“Why do some residents at my wife’s community remember me?”

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A reader writes in: “I have often wondered why my wife will remember some short-term things or why some of the other patients in her memory care center will remember me.”

This is a great question, so I decided to answer it in a larger post. 

There are a few reasons why someone will remember one thing, and not another. For example, my residents from the piano post recalled where the piano was, and that it had been moved. 

I once had a resident whose roommate had moved out, and all her furniture had been removed from the room. The resident came back, saw these things missing, but couldn’t place exactly what had happened. “Where…where is that chair that was in here?” she asked. A bed, a chair, a nightstand, and a whole human being were missing, but she’d fixated on the chair. Why? 

Although I cannot tell you exactly why a person will recall one thing and not another, here are some potential reasons:

  • Some residents who recognize you may have different types of dementia that do not affect their short-term memories the same as Alzheimer’s does.
  • A person’s memory depends where the damage is located in their brain. For example, some people with dementia will have trouble speaking, but will have pretty intact short-term memories.
  • Your brain is constantly working to make sense of things that don’t make sense. In the case of the roommate move-out, the woman’s brain fixated on the chair. Of all things, this may have been the most permanent in her short-term memory: maybe it was closest to her bed, or maybe it took up a lot of space in the room and bothered her. For whatever reason, her brain chose this item.
  • A person with dementia may recall things that are more “emotionally salient.” For example, hearing some great or terrible news from you may be more memorable than what time you are headed to dinner.
  • The time of day or the person’s mood can affect their ability to recall information.
  • Even if someone doesn’t remember your name, they may recognize your face.
  • In terms of the piano, I believe that, because my residents were used to seeing it in one space and then saw it in another space, they were able to recall that it had been moved.
  • If it relates to long-term memory, someone may become more fixated on it. For example, a retired teacher may spend days focused on the idea that she has to get her kids to lunch on time.

To some degree, it all just feels kind of random. Sometimes it is, but these reasons may provide some clarity as to why certain items are more memorable.

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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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