“Do you know who I am?”
It’s perhaps one of the most common questions we ask people who have some form of dementia. Although our query is made with the best of intentions, this is one of the worst things you can ask someone with Alzheimer’s.
People with dementia struggle to remember where they are, what they like to eat, where the restroom is located, what a toothbrush is called, what day it is, where their home is and so much more. They’re frustrated and scared and don’t understand why everything is so upside down from the way they remember. Asking them, “Do you know who I am?” can make them defensive since you’re unknowingly adding one more thing to the mountain of information they can’t remember.
When you’re communicating with someone who has Alzheimer’s, the goal isn’t to find out what they know or whom they recognize. It’s to put that person at ease and help them overcome whatever they’re struggling with at that particular moment. In other words, the focus should be on them, not on you.
Last week I went to Fountainview to visit my Dad. It’d been a month since I’d seen him. A long month. My Father had tested positive for COVID and was quarantined for two weeks, I caught a wicked cold, and Mom was still recovering from four broken ribs. I’m not sure what I expected from my visit, but one thing was obvious.
He didn’t know who I was.
Every time I see my Father, I tell him that I love him. If he tells me, “I love you too”, then he knows who I am. If he says, “OK” or “Thank you”, then he doesn’t know me. Last week when I told him I loved him, he said “Thank you”.
Of course it hurts. At times it feels like a dagger to the heart. My head knows that it’s the Alzheimer’s talking and not my Father. My head knows that there are layers of plaque on his brain, that his hippocampus is deteriorating, and his brain is basically dying. But my heart can’t quite grasp what my ears have just heard.
I know that I am blessed. I know there are thousands of people with Alzheimer’s who not only don’t recognize their family members, but they transform from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. They say hateful things, yell at their loved ones to leave them alone, maybe even throw something at them. Mercifully, my Father is not one of them. We all know it’s the disease talking, but somehow that is little consolation for a weary heart.
You wonder, should I show them pictures or videos of us together? Will they remember me then? Sometimes that works. But what if it doesn’t? If they still don’t recognize you, will you feel like you put more of your heart out there and it just got slammed in a vice? There is no magic wand you can wave over them or secret I can reveal to ensure that your loved one knows who you are and all their memories of you haven’t been vacuumed from their mind. I wish to God there was. You can pray that God would give them lucid moments.
When Dad said “Thank you” last week, I told myself that he didn’t know who I was because it’d been a month since I’d seen him. I didn’t focus on that. I just tried to figure out what would make him feel better. He was a bit scruffy that day, so I asked if he wanted a shave. He enthusiastically said, “Yes!” So I parked his wheelchair in his room and we listened to Johnny Cash while I lathered him up and tried my best to shave away his 5 o’clock shadow at 2 o’clock. I trimmed his hair, gave him a Sprite and a snack and quoted a couple of his favorite Bible verses, which he quoted with me. Then I asked if he wanted to go back and hang out with the others or stay a little longer in his room.
“Go back out there,” he said.
So I hugged him, told him that I loved him and wheeled him to join the other residents and look at magazines.
Although the visit lasted only an hour, my heart felt like it had just run an emotional marathon. But after ten years as a caregiver, I’ve learned that Jesus wants my hurt. So when I got in the car, I prayed:
“God, thank You that I got to see Dad today. I ask You to wash over me with Your peace and love right now. Take away any sadness or sorrow that I may have picked up today and heal my soul of any wounds made from this visit. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
After that prayer, I was fine. Honestly. Sure, I wanted my Father to know me. But because Jesus already took all my pain and suffering on Himself on the cross, I don’t have to bear it. Do you know how amazing that is?! Do you know how many burdens I’ve tried to carry, thought it was my duty to bear that were never meant for my shoulders? Too many to count!
But I’m learning. As a follower of Christ, I can rejoice in knowing that no matter what happens, I don’t have to bear the burden. I can give it to God. That’s one of His many roles as my Father. And one of my many blessings as His daughter.
Yesterday we went to see Dad again. During the visit, I bent down to speak to him face to face and told him, “Dad, I’m your daughter Angie and I just want you to know that I love you.” About ten minutes later, when it was time to leave, I hugged him and said, “I love you Dad.” His response was priceless.
“I love you too.”