Memory Loss: Recognizing Family & Friends

February 13, 2020

Bio photo: Arlen Solem

Memory Loss: Recognizing Family & Friends

“Whether that person can instantly recognize you is less important than your companionship in that moment.”

People with dementia forget things. No big news there. They forget little things, such as where they put their hairbrush or what they had for lunch. But they also forget bigger things. This can be disturbing for those with dementia and for those who care for them.

For many friends and family of those with dementia, it seems important that their loved one knows them. It’s understandable. Remembering people shows that they are important to you. It shows that they had some effect on your life. It means there is connection.

Family, Friends and Forgetting

Many people with dementia don’t remember people who they once knew. They might not recognize them, or there might be recognition, but they may confuse you with someone else or just not know how they know you. They might know your name but not your face. I have even read about a woman who knew her daughter by her voice when the lights were off in a room, but when the lights were on, she didn’t recognize her daughter. The image in this person’s mind was different than the person in front of her. With the lights off she could recognize her. Her face was less recognizable than her voice.

Sadly though, those with memory loss don’t always recognize people they once knew well, not by name or voice or sight. I see and hear often the struggles that families have with this issue, and how important it is to them that they are not forgotten. Families sometimes say that they visit often, so that they won’t be forgotten or unrecognized. Families who move away sometimes worry that when they come back to visit, they won’t be recognized. Sometimes visitors will pepper a person with dementia with questions: “Do you know who I am?”, “Who am I?”, or “What’s my name?” – those with dementia often feel the anxiety of these questions. They often can’t answer clearly but are left feeling ashamed, embarrassed or nervous. Sometimes they will nod ‘yes’ but seem to not know. They are just giving the answer that is desired.

Communicating to Encourage Recognition

I encourage people to introduce themselves when they visit. Say who you are and how you are connected: “Mary, this is your husband Bob,” or “Howard, your brother Max is here to visit.” If they don’t recognize you, this brings some clarity to the relationship. Perhaps they didn’t recognize you at all or perhaps they knew you but just didn’t remember the relationship. And if they do recognize and know you, they might think it is strange that you introduced yourself or they may respond, “I know who you are.” But sometimes even in these responses there is relief, because they didn’t initially recognize you but now the connection is confirmed. These greetings can bring some relief. Overall, the benefit of putting someone at ease by introducing yourself outweighs the potential negative of saying who you are to someone who knows your name already.

Changes During Communication

Those with dementia change and go back and forth: one day they know you, the next they don’t. People with dementia will even change mid-conversation. I know one woman who has said that when she is visiting with her husband, he may be speaking to her as his wife one moment and then be speaking to her as if she is his mother the next. A very different relationship but still a close one.

It is important to remember that whether or not a person recognizes you or knows you doesn’t change the importance that you had in that person’s life. The disease is causing the confusion, it’s not a reflection on that person’s relationship with you.

Being Valued & Loved

Whether you are a spouse, child, relative or friend, the value of that relationship hasn’t changed. The past you’ve shared hasn’t changed. The present is still important, and whether that person can instantly recognize you is less important than your companionship in that moment.

When you show care and concern, when you hold someone’s hand, hug them, show them pictures or tell them about your day, they know you love them, whether they recognize you immediately or not. What they will know is that you care for them, that you value your time together, and that they are a loved and cared for person. They will know how you make them feel.

Reverend Arlen Solem

Chaplain and Campus Pastor


For questions about our spiritual care program, or if you would like spiritual care and support for you or your loved one, contact Chaplain Arlen Solem at 612-554-6379 or

At Emerald Crest, we offer a deep knowledge of memory care in a specialized assisted living setting for seniors with Alzheimer’s and dementia-related conditions. We encourage you to contact us directly with any questions or request a tour. For tours and general information, please contact Christine Drasher at 952-908-2215.

Emerald Crest by Augustana Care provides memory care in a unique environment, specifically designed to support those with cognitive issues. Utilizing this exceptional model of care, individuals with dementia, Alzheimer’s and related conditions can flourish in positive relationships and participation in meaningful activities. Memory care is offered in the Minneapolis – Saint Paul area with communities in four convenient locations: ShakopeeBurnsvilleMinnetonka and Victoria, MN.

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We were exceptionally pleased with the staff and their care – beyond our expectations. We picked Emerald Crest because of the “family” atmosphere and home environment.  We speak very highly of Emerald Crest in the community and would refer someone with full confidence and no reservations.

— Kim, daughter of resident