“But Don’t You Remember?”

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“But don’t you remember…?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people ask this of individuals living with dementia. Honestly, it’s almost comical the statements and questions I’ve heard. “Mom! Don’t you remember that you have a memory problem?” Ehhhhh…really?

Okay, I’ve never heard anyone ask this EXACT question, but something like, “Don’t you remember, the doctor said you have to live here now because of your dementia” is about the same thing.

We never want to QUIZ someone living with dementia.

If you know the answer, you don’t need to ask them the question. It’s not going to “help” their memory. And, if you don’t know the answer, ask someone else. 

Here’s a great example if your loved one lives in a dementia care community: instead of asking your loved one, “What did you eat for breakfast today?” ask a staff member, “Did my mom eat well at breakfast today?” You’ll get much more reliable information and you won’t put your loved one in a tough spot where they need to recall something from their short-term memory.

When I worked as a Dementia Care Director, I regularly watched families “quiz” loved ones about facts. I once even caught a visitor asking a loved one, “Do you remember me?” I cringed.

“Of course!” I heard my resident exclaim, giving the woman a hug.

Instead of stopping there, the visitor asked, “Do you remember my name?”

Ugh. I bit my lip with irritation and anxiety as my resident struggled to remember the woman’s name.

“Um, well…yes…it’s…it’s…I’m sorry, I must be slow today!” she said, trying to laugh off the awkward moment.

My resident didn’t realize that she had a memory problem, and she was upset and embarrassed by her inability to remember her guest’s name. This was awful to watch, but there was nothing I could’ve done in that moment. Check out last week’s post on Timeline Confusion for more on this specific topic.

The only thing that I can do now is tell you this: please don’t quiz someone with dementia. Don’t ask him what he ate for breakfast. Don’t ask her if she’s able to recall yesterday’s events. As I often tell care partners: if he could, he would, but he can’t, so he doesn’t.

What you can do is bring up long-term memories. Ask a leading question in order to get him to understand the context of the conversation. “Remember how hilarious it was when Sarah used to hide behind curtains as a child?” People with dementia retain their long-term memory, or at least many pieces of it, for most of their lives. You may need to assist with context, but focus on things that you shared with this person. Ask her how she feels about something, how she enjoyed her job at the local soda shop as a kid, or what her favorite pastime is. Just don’t quiz her.

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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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