Mar 7, 2011

What do you do when your husband doesn’t recognize you?

A question from a reader:

My mother is the caregiver for my father and she would like to know how to handle this situation. He asks her many many times a day to call his wife for him. He also asks other people to please call his wife for him. Is it okay to correct him and to tell him that she is his wife? How would you handle this?

By Vicki de Klerk-Rubin

It is so painful not to be recognized after many, many years of marriage. It is not only a loss of your husband, but it feels like a total denial of those years together. For many people, this is one of the toughest situations to deal with and face. Your husband looks straight at you and asks if you would please call his wife.

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As a Validation* teacher I’ve faced this question and situation many times. Assuming that this man has late onset Alzheimer’s disease and not some other form of dementia, we know several things.

Validation principle #9. Maloriented and disoriented old people live on several levels of awareness, often at the same time.

What this means is that on some deep level of ‘knowing’, this man knows that his wife has aged along with him and she is right there. So, you would never lie to him and say, “Well, I'll just call her for you and she’ll come later.” The man would know on some level that this is not true and would stop communicating or get angry.

Principle 5. There is a reason behind the behavior of very old maloriented and disoriented people.

What could possibly be the reason for this man’s behavior? I can think of many different things, but here is one that has come up in other cases.

If this man’s need to be useful and productive in the world was frustrated, he could easily move into a personal reality where he was younger and still working. In that world, his wife is younger – like she was 40 years ago. This older woman does not look anything like the lovely partner in his mind’s eye.

If you confront him with reality, he most likely won’t listen, will withdraw or get angry. Remember, he can’t change. Only you can change how you respond. If you want to have a warm and loving relationship, it has to be within his world.

With these thoughts in mind, what can you do? The first step is to put aside the hurt feelings, the anger and frustration. Breathe deeply, center yourself. Really observe your husband (father). What emotions do you see in his face? Is he worried, angry, sad? Then ask what is going on. Explore his world.

For example: (Your husband’s face looks worried. His voice tone is tight and his body language is tense.) “You look very worried about your wife. What’s going on? What happened?”

Use open questions: who, what, where, when and how. Avoid using ‘why’ because this is asking for a cognitive response that the person usually can’t give.

Hopefully, these few tips will allow you to continue communicating with your husband and share some lovely moments.

*Validation is a method for communicating with very old people who have been diagnosed with late onset Alzheimer’s disease. Validation uses a respectful, empathetic attitude, accepts that this person is in the final life stage of resolving unfinished issues in order to die in peace and uses verbal and non-verbal techniques to connect with that person in the moment.

Vicki de Klerk-Rubin is on the Board of the Validation Training Institute and a certified Validation Master. She holds a BFA degree from Boston University, an MBA from Fordham University and is a Dutch-trained RN. Since 1989, Mrs. de Klerk has given Validation workshops, lectures and training courses throughout Europe, Japan and the U.S. For more information about Validation, please see our website, Validation Training Institute.

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