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Daughter broken-hearted after dad doesn’t recognize her

Carol Bradley Bursack offers tips on what to do when a loved one with Alzheimer's no longer recognizes you.

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Dear Carol: My heart is breaking. For more than five years, I cared for my dad in his own home, then brought him into mine. After two years with me, he needed more help than I could provide so we moved him to memory care. I visit nearly every day, yet yesterday when I went into his room, he asked when his daughter was coming. I know that not recognizing people is a predictable stage of Alzheimer’s but knowing doesn’t help. I swear that was the most painful moment for me so far in our whole Alzheimer’s journey. I need to get a grip on this because choking back tears when I see him won’t do either of us any good. Can you offer any words of wisdom? – SK

Dear SK:  My heart is with you. When someone we have cared for and even sacrificed for doesn’t recognize us for who we are in their lives, we are wounded. It feels like a negation of all that we’ve shared. How you handle this as you move forward will make a difference to both of you.

My “words of wisdom” are this: While your dad can’t place you as his daughter because his brain is unable to retrieve the correct information, I believe that he still knows you in his heart.

An illustration: A young woman named Anna told me that her grandma hadn’t recognized her in a year. Yet one day when Anna visited, her grandma looked up and cheerfully said, “Hi, Anna!” Naturally, Anna was stunned but delighted, yet minutes later, her grandma’s moment of clarity had vanished. She continued to be loving, but she could no longer place Anna. That single moment was proof enough to Anna that she was still in her grandma’s heart regardless of the memory loss wrought by Alzheimer’s.

You’ll notice, SK, that some days your dad will be clearer than others. Make life easier for him by cheerfully announcing yourself saying, “Hi Dad! It’s Sarah, your daughter!” Doing this will help him place you if he’s struggling and can help prevent embarrassment. Then, continue your visit with the same warmth and compassion you’ve always shown. For now, cherish those times when he recognizes you, but prepare yourself for the progression of the disease and his escalating memory loss.


Once you stop expecting your dad to recognize you, it will be easier to handle when he doesn’t. Not less painful, but easier. Should he have a moment of clarity, embrace it as an unexpected gift. These moments are a mystery even to researchers, and they are both unpredictable and uncommon. I only mention them because to me they indicate that even when memory fails, the heart remembers.

Whether or not your dad ever has moments when he can call you by name, he knows that you are there for him and that helps him feel secure and loved. Hold tight to the certainty that he still loves you and blesses you for all your help.

Read more columns from Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver and a nationally-recognized presence in caregiver support. She's the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” a longtime newspaper columnist and host of her blog at mindingoureldersblogs.com. Carol's an introverted book nerd, so you won't see her mugging in viral videos, but you can easily reach her using the contact form at mindingourelders.com.
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