As dementia progresses, some people stop recognising people they know – even close friends and family. This can be upsetting for the person with dementia and for the people who are no longer recognised.
Not everyone with dementia will have difficulty recognising people, though – for example, it’s more common in people with Alzheimer’s disease, and rarer in those with vascular dementia.
Sometimes, a lack of recognition of friends and family is a memory issue. A person with dementia may appear to travel back in time, reliving memories from when they were younger. They might expect grown-up children to be small again, or think their parents are still alive, or believe they’re still working, or in a relationship with a previous partner or spouse.
In other cases, the part of the brain that is responsible for recognising faces can become damaged. This is referred to as ‘prosopagnosia’ or ‘face blindness’.
If a person with dementia is failing to recognise you or others for the first time, or seems distressed in your company, there may be another underlying cause, such as an infection, constipation or a reaction to medication changes. It’s a good idea to make an appointment with their GP to rule out other causes that could be treatable.
These tips may help the person with dementia to understand where they are in time and recognise the people around them.
Put photos around the home of important times that you spent together, such as weddings, birthdays and holidays
Choose photos that show the progression of time – for example, a picture of their children as toddlers, at a midpoint of their life, and in recent times
Keep a photo album on display and mark photos with people’s names, the year and the event
Wear clothes that the person associates with you, such as a top that you wear a lot, or a jumper you wore when you were younger
Wear perfume or aftershave that the person associates with you, and encourage them to wear their favourite fragrance – familiar smells often trigger memories
Ask the person about the memories they talk about. Conversations about happy memories that feel familiar will help them feel at ease
Encourage them to take part in activities that you can enjoy together, like listening to familiar music, watching a favourite film, drawing or colouring, doing jigsaw puzzles, or going for a walk together
Try not to keep reminding them of more recent events that they’re having trouble grasping, such as the death of their parents, as this can cause distress and confusion
Stay in their eyeline – avoid suddenly appearing from the side or from behind
If the person is struggling to recognise you, introduce yourself and explain the connection between you, for instance: “Hello Mum, it’s Julie, your daughter, and I have little Danny, your grandson, with me”
Be reassuring; look the person in the eye and smile
If the person is getting agitated, take yourself to another room for a few minutes before coming back in calmly, and saying something like: “Hello, I’m back now, how lovely to see you”
Try not to correct the person if they get your name wrong or say something that isn’t true – this can lead to distress and frustration on all sides
It can be very upsetting if a loved one doesn’t recognise you, but it doesn’t mean the person has totally forgotten you. They will often feel attached to you and enjoy your company even if they can’t remember your name or how you are connected to them.
Our free Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline can support you if you’re caring for a person who doesn’t recognise you. Call 0800 888 6678 (Monday-Friday 9am-9pm, Saturday and Sunday 9am-5pm, every day except Christmas Day) or email email@example.com.