Mistaken Identities in Dementialand

I spoke at the Illinois and Iowa Quad City Family Conference on Saturday. We had a great turnout, and even had some press coverage:


(Please note that I hate my press photo and have no idea why it appears that my hair is longer on one side than the other.)

After I spoke, a small line of people formed by the stage to talk to me. I jumped off the stage because I didn’t want to “talk down” to people. This jump turned out to be a poor decision. I had on heels and should’ve used the steps. I practically took down a lovely woman in her 50s with me when I landed. Fortunately, she seemed willing to break my fall. After I was pretty sure I would not need medical attention, she told me a story.

Her mom has Alzheimer’s. Her father had been an abusive alcoholic and left her mother decades before, and her mom had remarried. On most days, her mom didn’t remember that her first husband had walked out, and she certainly didn’t remember getting remarried. She called her second husband by her first husband’s name. Ugh.

A side note about being mistaken for someone else…If we like that person, we generally tolerate it much better. For instance, I went to high school with a girl named Kelly Oliver. I didn’t think we looked all that much alike, but I got called Kelly once in a while. I will add that Kelly was cute, athletic, and the sweetest person you’ll ever meet. I corrected people when they called me by her name, but I also didn’t mind being mistaken for her. I was flattered.

This guy was in a different boat. Not only was his wife unable to correctly identify him, she was mistaking him for someone who was a real jerk. I’m sure he wasn’t a fan of his wife’s first husband, and now (in her reality) that’s who he was. She would even make occasional comments about how needed to stop drinking, go back to Alcoholics Anonymous, and stop cheating on her.

I asked the woman how her mom’s current husband responded when he was mistaken for her first husband. She told me that he had stopped correcting her. He had even apologized for “his” past drinking problems and “his” affairs. Then he promised that this part of life was behind him and he would always be there for her now. It sounded like he made his promise quite a bit, and it seemed to comfort his wife. In fact, she would usually smile and say something about a “new beginning” for them. For the time being, his strategy seemed to be working. I was impressed. Really impressed.

I’m always telling families to stop arguing about who you are. Just roll with it. However, it’s a lot easier to do this when you’re mistaken for someone who you like and respect. When you’re not flattered by who grandma thinks you are, you tend to get a little bit more argumentative.

I once was visiting a memory care community when I heard a young woman tell her grandma in an annoyed tone, “Grandma, I’m Hannah. Liz is my sister. You can tell us apart because Liz is A LOT heavier than I am. And her nose is bigger.”

I think I might have laughed out loud. If grandma can’t tell her granddaughters apart, she is probably not going to remember the next time she sees them that Liz is the heavier of the two and needs a nose job. And, on the off-chance she does remember, she may tell Liz that she recognized her because she’s fat and has a big nose. Not exactly a win-win situation.

The take-home message here is that we can have a connection with someone even if they don’t know who we are or thinks we are someone else. Often times, we destroy that opportunity for connection when we spend time arguing about who we are.

I know it’s hard. And you get to grieve, but you don’t get to do it in front of them. If mom thinks you’re her sister instead of her daughter, continue on and have a positive visit. Talk about the weather. Smile and laugh. Then, after you leave, cry in the car. Or call a friend to vent.

It’s brutal to accept that someone you love no longer recognizes you, but accepting that may be the key to enjoying time with them. Sometimes we have to let go of what was in order to enjoy what is.