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Failure to recognise people

Changes in behaviour


When I visit my wife in hospital, she talks about me and about things we did together, as if she were talking to someone else about me. It saddens me, but at the same time I realise that she hasn’t forgotten me at all. She still cares for me a lot, but she just doesn’t recognise me.

If the person you are caring for sometimes has difficulty recognising who people are and what objects are, you may be inclined to put it down to memory loss, confusion or faulty eyesight. In some cases, you may be right. However, there is another possibility. It could be due to the fact that the brain of the person with dementia cannot put together and make sense of what they remember and what they can see. Information from these two sources no longer tallies. This problem is sometimes referred to as “agnosia”. The consequences of this problem are that someone may fail to recognise people and use objects inappropriately. This can make life very difficult for the person and increase isolation and fear in that familiar people may be perceived as strangers. It can also be disturbing for other people who may find the behaviour strange and may cause sadness to close friends and family, particularly when the person fails to recognise them. However, you may be able to help the person to understand who people are, what objects are and how to use them.

How to cope with failure to recognise people and objects

Try to provide assistance without drawing unnecessary attention to the mistake

With objects, it might be simplest just to give the person the appropriate object and explain or demonstrate how it is used, without drawing unnecessary attention to the mistake. If the person with dementia does not accept your explanation there is no point arguing. On the other hand, it sometimes helps to point out different features of the object or characteristics of the person - for example, their voice.

If the person with dementia does not recognise somebody or mixes up people’s names in a conversation, you could explain who the people are – in fact, you might find yourself doing so automatically. But it is perhaps unnecessary and you may be drawing unnecessary attention to a mistake. As the person is likely to forget a few seconds or minutes later, it might also be a waste of time. It is therefore preferable to respect their view, ignore the mistake and attend to what they are trying to say. If the person does not recognise someone, they might feel afraid or disturbed. If this is the case, it is important to provide reassurance. After all, if the person cannot recognise a once familiar person, they will feel as if they were surrounded by strangers, not knowing whether these strangers can be trusted.

Don’t take offence if the person with dementia does not recognise you, but reassure them

Although you are likely to feel hurt by the lack of recognition, remember that the person with dementia has not necessarily forgotten you and that this reaction is not a rejection of you personally. He or she may in fact have fond memories of you and miss you, even though you are still there.



Last Updated: Monday 10 August 2009