Overcoming Denial When a Loved One Has Alzheimer's

George, a close friend of my life partner, Ed Theodoru, was visiting from out of town. One evening they had a long talk about a wide range of topics - most of which concerned George's professional issues. The next day Ed had no memory of the visit, let alone what they had discussed.

I had been telling George for months that Ed had Alzheimer's, but he never believed me. He thought Ed's memory problems were just due to normal aging. In short, he was in a state of deep denial.

George simply couldn't believe that Ed didn't remember their time together the previous evening. He tried to jog Ed's memory but it didn't work. At all.

George was distressed. In fact he spent all the rest of his time with Ed trying to refresh his memory of their talk. When it didn't work, he left for the airport to go home, upset and distraught. Feeling like a failure. Feeling unloved.

What George didn't realize was that Ed would never remember that visit. It would have made more sense to spend their remaining time together discussing something else or experiencing their relationship in some other way. They could have had a pleasant - maybe even joyous - visit.

All too often loved ones of people with Alzheimer's are in denial. Hence they spend their time trying to get the person to 'act normal.' Trying to get them to remember and do things they will never be able to remember or do. This only leads to anger and frustration for the visitor and often for the person with Alzheimer's as well.

It would be so much better to look for ways to have a relationship and interact at the level of their loved one rather than try to drag that person into our world. Because they can't function in our world. We can only reach them and enjoy them in their world - at their level. To enjoy them in 'Alzheimer's world,' as Bob DeMarco, founder of the Alzheimer's Reading Room, calls it.

One problem is that people in denial rarely know they're in denial. They believe the person can be normal and remember things if they just try hard enough to make them remember. Hence, it's difficult for them to change the way they approach their relationship and spending time with their loved one.

This is a serious problem, the solution to which is quite difficult. If you are interacting with a friend of yours who doesn't have Alzheimer's but who's forgotten something important, the natural thing to do is to try to jog their memory. Chances are they will remember. This is 'normal.'

If you try the same thing with a person who has Alzheimer's you will inevitably be disappointed. Your efforts will fail. You will miss out on the joy you might have if you accept the memory loss and find some other way to connect. To connect on a level that could be meaningful to you both.

If you feel that you're in denial, try interacting in some way that focuses on the present moment rather than one that involves the person's memory. See how that works. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Marie Marley is the award-winning author of Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy, and the co-author (with neurologist Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN) of Finding Joy in Alzheimer's: New Hope for Caregivers. Her website (ComeBackEarlyToday.com) contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer's caregivers.