What if I visit and he doesn’t know who I am?

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Care partners regularly ask me about one of their deepest fears.

The fear usually goes like this: at some point, you’ll walk in to visit your loved one, and that person will look at you with a blank stare. “Who are you?” they’ll ask you, as your own eyes fill with tears.

Here’s the good news: this fear is mostly nonsense; a myth perpetuated throughout modern society through movies and TV shows. I blame 2004′s “The Notebook” for about half of it.

If your loved one living with dementia has trouble figuring out who you are, it’s not because they’ve forgotten you/don’t love you/you don’t matter/etc: it’s just because, on their timeline, you either don’t exist yet or aren’t the age they think you should be.

As an example, if you are 65 years old and your father remembers you being only 35, he’s going to wonder who this lovely 65-year-old woman is when she walks through the door. “Wow!” he thinks. “I know I like this person, I know she looks familiar…but from where?” In his mind, you’re 35, not 65. He may call you his wife, his sister, or another female relative or friend. This makes sense, right? I call this idea Timeline Confusion.

In this situation, we don’t want to spend time saying things like, “Dad! Don’t you remember? I’m your daughter!” Instead, it’s best to go along with where his timeline is. If he thinks you are your mother, that’s okay. If he suddenly begins touching your thigh, it’s okay to move away, but if he just wants to spend time with you, don’t exert effort trying to force him onto your timeline.

If the person living with dementia is your grandparent, there may be a very good chance that, in their mind, you don’t even exist yet! If they think of themselves as being your age, how the heck would they have grandkids? 

I’ve met a LOT of people living with dementia. I’ve only seen this Timeline Confusion happen a handful of times: most of the time, people recognize their loved ones on their timeline throughout the entire course of the disease. 

If Timeline Confusion DOES happen to your loved one, it will happen slowly. If something changes suddenly, it’s because there’s a medical problem: they may have a Urinary Tract Infection or suffered a small stroke. Change like this doesn’t occur overnight. 

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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 two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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