Memory loss, whether caused by a medical condition like Alzheimer’s disease, trauma, or aging, can be a profound challenge for both the individual and those around them.
Navigating conversations can be tricky, especially if you’re unaware of the sensitive nature of the topic.
Our guide, “What Not to Say to Someone with Memory Loss”, aims to shed light on certain phrases that might inadvertently cause hurt, offering alternatives for more supportive dialogue.
15 Things You Should Never Say to Someone with Memory Loss
“You just told me that.”
Elaboration: When someone repeats themselves, it’s not a deliberate choice. By highlighting the repetition, you might make the person feel self-conscious or embarrassed. Responding with patience and kindness, even if you’ve heard the story before, shows understanding.
“Do you remember me?”
Elaboration: Directly questioning their memory can put immense pressure on them, and if they don’t recall, it could lead to distress. A gentle introduction, perhaps reminding them of your relationship, is a more tactful approach.
“I just told you that.”
Elaboration: Pointing out forgotten information can exacerbate feelings of frustration or inadequacy. Repeating the information with empathy helps create a safe space for communication.
“How can you not remember?”
Elaboration: This statement suggests a voluntary lapse in memory, insinuating negligence. Remember, if they could control their memory loss, they would. Empathy is vital.
“It’s right in front of you!”
Elaboration: Apart from memory, cognitive disorders can also impact spatial recognition or attention. Demonstrating patience and guiding them gently is more helpful than showing impatience.
“It’s okay, it’s just a minor detail.”
Elaboration: While meant to be reassuring, this might inadvertently diminish their feelings. It’s essential to validate their experience, even if the forgotten detail seems minor to you.
“Your memory will come back if you try harder.”
Elaboration: This assumes memory loss is about effort. It’s a misconception that can cause added stress. Offering support without setting unrealistic expectations is more helpful.
“You remember [person], right?”
Elaboration: Putting them on the spot can increase anxiety. Instead, gently weave the person’s name or relationship into the conversation to help them recall without pressure.
“I’ve already answered that question.”
Elaboration: While it might be repetitive for you, for them, each query feels new. Answering with kindness without highlighting the repetition is crucial for maintaining their confidence.
“You used to remember these things.”
Elaboration: Referring to their past capabilities might amplify feelings of loss or inadequacy. Celebrate their current moments and accomplishments instead of drawing comparisons.
“Are you sure you’ve forgotten?”
Elaboration: This questions the validity of their experience. Trust their feelings and experiences, even if they differ from your own perspective.
Elaboration: Pushing someone to exert mental effort not only oversimplifies their condition but can also cause emotional distress. Gentle reminders or cues are a more constructive approach.
“You’re just being lazy.”
Elaboration: Dismissing memory loss as laziness is hurtful and inaccurately represents the challenges they face. Recognize their efforts and the genuine struggles they navigate daily.
“But it happened so recently!”
Elaboration: The nature of memory loss doesn’t always correlate with time. Recent events can be just as challenging to recall as older ones. Recognize this challenge without drawing attention to the time frame.
“It must not have been important if you forgot.”
Elaboration: It’s a misconception that only unimportant memories fade. Significant events or loved ones can also slip away due to memory loss. Always approach their experiences with sensitivity and understanding.
Why Someone with Memory Loss Might Be Sensitive to What You Say to Them
Memory loss, regardless of its origin—whether from conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injuries, or other medical issues—profoundly alters an individual’s experience of the world. As such, individuals with memory loss may display heightened sensitivity to comments or observations made about them. Here’s why:
Loss of Independence: Memory plays a crucial role in our day-to-day functions, from small tasks like remembering to turn off the stove to bigger ones like recognizing loved ones. Memory loss can reduce an individual’s independence, making them reliant on others. Comments, even if unintentional, can highlight this vulnerability.
Identity Shift: Our memories help shape our sense of self. They contribute to our life narrative, defining experiences, and personal evolution. When memory fades, a person might feel they are losing parts of themselves. Comments pointing towards this loss can be deeply hurtful.
Frustration and Embarrassment: Individuals with memory loss often recognize their declining cognitive abilities, leading to internal frustration. Comments from others can intensify feelings of embarrassment and inadequacy.
Fear and Anxiety: The unpredictability of memory loss can lead to anxiety. A person might constantly fear forgetting vital information, getting lost, or not recognizing familiar faces. Comments that highlight these fears or uncertainties can cause distress.
Desire for Normalcy: Like anyone dealing with a health issue, people with memory loss often desire to maintain normalcy. Pointed comments can alienate them or make them feel ‘different,’ exacerbating feelings of isolation.
Emotional Sensitivity: Some forms of memory loss, especially neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s, can lead to increased emotional sensitivity or mood fluctuations. This can make individuals more reactive or sensitive to remarks they might have previously brushed off.
Defensiveness: Recognizing the reality of memory decline can be tough. As a defense mechanism, some individuals might deny the extent of their memory problems. Comments or questions probing their memory can be perceived as confrontational.
Stigma of Cognitive Decline: Society often places a high value on sharp cognitive function. Memory loss, unfortunately, carries a societal stigma. People might already feel judged or pitied, so insensitive comments can reinforce these feelings.
Repetitive Reactions: Because they might forget previous interactions, individuals with memory loss can have similar reactions to the same comments. This repetition can be draining for caregivers or family members, but it’s essential to remember that each reaction is genuine and new for the person experiencing memory loss.
Empathy and patience are paramount when conversing with someone experiencing memory loss.
Simple words or questions can unintentionally inflict pain or confusion.
By being conscious of our language and offering gentle support, we can make their journey a bit easier and foster a sense of understanding and compassion.
Photo by Kitera Dent on Unsplash
I’m a MA, (CMT) Certified Massage Therapist, Licensed Massage Therapist (LMT), and Reiki Master — I’m a licensed massage therapist with over 10 years of experience in the industry.