Have you ever had a friend say “Remember when …” and you have NO idea or recollection of what they just recalled? We can usually giggle about it with our friends. I have to say the worst are the times when my husband will say “remember when we … ” and my only response is “ummm, I think you did that with one of your girlfriends” and there is probably a little edge of jealously in my response. After close to 20 years of marriage and several years dating before that, those stories don’t happen as much anymore, thankfully.
However, in some ways when we are talking to someone with dementia, the use of “remember when …” and “remember” is perceived differently since more often than not the person you are asking cannot remember. When someone asks me if I “remember” and I don’t, a little panic button goes off in my brain. How might that feel if you no longer have the ability to retrieve information and this happens to you all day long? When I started to consider that, I could easily understand why some discussions with mom ended up with her feeling anxious.
When I first heard the advice to avoid the use of “remember”, I realized I was using it more often to correct my parents or point out poor decision (see the list of 20 things to NOT say to someone with dementia). I was understanding they could no longer remember, but not really practiced at how to spend time with them. At first, I was trying to get them to recognize that they could not remember, which they never did and is very common. For more insight into this, read the blog on anosognosia.
Some recurring instances included:
- After we would order dinner at a restaurant and the waiter took the menus, my dad would complain about the lack of service — I changed what I used to say which was “Remember dad, we already ordered”, to “Oh, I heard that chicken dish you ordered is very good, and I can’t wait to get the fried tomato appetizer.”
- After my mom finished off a box of peanut brittle and wanted to open up another box for dessert, while I used to say “You already ate half of box,” I would instead get up telling her that I was going to see if there was more and return with a cup of tea and a new subject.
In many ways, I was using “remember” to point out bad behavior or convince my parents that their decision was poor and to illustrate why they needed to let me help. It was really having the opposite effect. When I learned how to change my responses, I found my visits with my parents went much better.
I started to show up to visits with pictures, so while I shared a story and used someone’s name, I would point to the person in the picture. I did it to help enrich the story.
Recently, I read a news article where a caregiver would take pictures on her smart phone to show her mom that she had already enjoyed ice cream. With my mom, I know that would have made her unhappy. She would recognize that she didn’t remember it and suddenly, I became the buzz kill. What works with one person with dementia, doesn’t work with everyone. No matter how you choose to visit and spend time with them, think less about what not to say, and maybe think more about how what you say makes them feel. To someone who is lost their ability to “remember”, it might not be a good term to have in your vocabulary. Reminded.