Dealing with Loss: When a Parent with Dementia Fails to Recognize You

Article Summary

This article discusses the feelings of loss and grief experienced by those with a parent suffering from dementia, and how to cope with these feelings.

Key takeaways:

  1. People react differently to ambiguous loss caused by a parent's dementia.
  2. Grief and loss caused by a parent's dementia can be overwhelming and exhausting.
  3. It is important to practice self-care and seek out support when dealing with ambiguous loss.


At the start of the pandemic, assisted-living facilities and memory-care centers across the nation shut their doors to visitors to help stop the spread of COVID-19. If your parent was in a long-term-care facility, you probably couldn’t visit for several months, even if you lived locally.

It’s often easier to stay in touch with a parent with dementia when you visit in person. However, in-person visits aren’t always possible, either because you live too far away or your parent’s facility has temporarily prohibited visitors for safety reasons.

Whether you’re local or long-distance, you may be seeking ways to remain emotionally connected with your parent and stay informed about their health status and care. Here are five ways to stay better attuned to a parent with dementia who lives in an assisted-living or memory-care facility:

Connect with a staff member

Whether by phone or in person, you may find that you click with a particular nurse in your parent’s facility. If you’ve developed good rapport, ask if you can call once a week to speak with them to find out how your parent is progressing medically, emotionally and socially. This may help you stay up-to-date on subtle changes that wouldn’t warrant a phone call.

“Usually in these facilities, if there’s a [notable] change in the healthcare of the patient, there is a contact person that they will call,” says geriatrician David Hackethorn, MD, assistant professor of internal medicine at Texas A&M Health Science Center in College Station. “If for example, the patient develops pneumonia, they would call.”

Your contact may also help you stay informed about activities that take place in the facility. Ask your contact to sign you up for monthly emails with the facility’s activity calendar listing crafting activities, movie viewings, sing-alongs and more. You’ll know when to ask your parent if they participated in recent events, which may get them talking.

Create a predictable call schedule

Commit to calling regularly, so that your parent knows to expect your call every Sunday or Tuesday. If you’re planning to speak with a nurse first, schedule the weekly call around the staff member’s work schedule.

End each call by telling your parent that you’ll call back on a set date at a set time, and keep your promise. It may be comforting for your parent to know that you’ll speak again soon. You can schedule reminders on your phone so that you don’t forget to call.

Use technology for face-to-face visits

Hearing each other’s voices by phone can be comforting. Video calls may be even better, since you’ll be able to see each other’s facial expressions. If your parent has difficulty contributing much to the conversation, seeing each other’s smiles on a video screen may be reassuring.

Since the start of the pandemic, staff at many long-term-care facilities have been helping families communicate with their loved ones by iPad, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom and other platforms. If you ask someone to help your parent connect with you by video call once a week, that’s a reasonable request.

“Those are great ways to communicate,” Hackethorn says. “Of course, a dementia patient loses that capability with time. Somebody else has to do it for them.”

Send personalized packages

If your parent’s facility allows it, deliver care packages periodically. Include photos, handwritten notes, special foods that they love, drawings made by their grandchildren and anything else that might resonate with them. If they have access to a CD player, consider sending an album of their favorite songs from the ’50s or ’60s; listening may help to bring back memories from their younger days.

Visit when you can

Make plans to visit your parent occasionally, even if you’re a long drive or a flight away. You may pick up on issues which need to be addressed that you can’t see by video call. Your parent may not notice the problem or have the words to describe what’s happening.

“[It helps to] have first-hand information,” Hackethorn says. “Come in and see your loved one.”

Author Bio

Lisa Fields is a passionate healthcare writer and advocate for better senior care in America. This article has been reviewed by Dr. Logan DuBose, MD and co-founder of

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