Part 2: The pain of forgetting the life you lived

Reai-life medical and health advice from a veteran nurse and manager of health professionals.


One of the obvious effects of even moderate dementia is that a person afflicted by it forgets.

Forgets events. Forgets faces. Forgets names. Forgets facts.

But the deepest fear for a thoughtful, independent person is to lose the memory of everything in life that mattered. To have all the rich events and experiences and relationships wiped away. It is a fundamental loss of humanity that dementia inflicts.


It is a deep, fearsome pain in the soul to be forced to confront that future.

There are a few things about memories that really surprise me and continue to baffle me about Mom’s dementia.

I can’t always anticipate what she clearly remembers and what she forgets. She talks a lot about her life as a child, but can’t remember her husband of 40-plus years or her childrens' names or when her birthday is.

She often asks me if I remember the neighbor down the street when she was growing up.

Most of the time she accepts that her memory is fading, but sometimes she cries because she realizes that she remembers less and less.  Dementia is not painless.

Mom often asks me the same thing over and over again. I try to be patient and answer as if it were the first time she asked. I would advise those caregivers out there to never say, “remember you just asked that question and I answered you” because they don’t remember. It is painful and depressing for seniors to realize they can’t recall or retain new information.

Some of that missing information involves decisions that had been carefully considered and decided.

When she first moved in with me, she constantly talked about going home, and I had to explain to her that she would not be able to return home. She now suggests that infrequently.

She often tells me it is fine to leave her alone and that she’ll be OK. But I have caregivers with her during the day, while I work; so she is never alone.

She hasn’t totally accepted her functional limitations and often asks me what she can do to help me around the house. She wants to feel useful and helpful, and I struggle to give her small chores such as setting the table for dinner and folding the laundry. Because of her poor eyesight, she is unable to help with any of the cooking.

That’s a loss for her. It’s something she cared about.

The next time someone suggests to you that dementia is “just” losing memories, think of how those memories define who you are and what you are. Dementia makes you forget yourself. All of yourself. There are few more painful losses than that.


Part 3 next: The first temptation is to treat them as children. That’s the worst reaction, and next time I‘ll tell you why.


Who am I, and why would a person listen to me? Both fair questions. I’m Christine Hammerlund and I’ve been a nurse for years. I have delivered babies, saved lives, and cared for hundreds of patients through their medical triumphs and tragedies. Now I run Assured Healthcare at http://www.assuredhealthcare.com. We're a multi-million dollar medical staff provider in Illinois. I live in Antioch, Ill. Got health questions for me, whether large or small? I’ll answer. Visit us at http://www.facebook.com/AssuredHealthcareStaffing  and Chrishammerlund@yahoo.com

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Pam DeFiglio January 17, 2013 at 04:41 AM
Chris, thank you for helping to understand what my mom is going through. She has early dementia. I have occasionally said to her,"you just told me that five minutes ago" because I thought it would challenge her to try to remember. Thanks for writing this sensitive column.
Chris Hammerlund February 13, 2013 at 04:33 PM
Pam, I'm so glad that you've found my blogs useful. It's very difficult to watch a loved one fade away. I hope there will be a cure discovered in our lifetime. Good luck with your Mom.
Steve S. February 13, 2013 at 05:26 PM
Great piece, I am in the midst of this with my father and your words are helpful. Thank you.


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