What’s in a name?

Published 2:45 pm Thursday, October 5, 2017

In business, education and social situations, we learn that remembering someone’s name is essential to making a good impression. Some of us were taught memory devices to help us remember. However, as I grow older, many such devices have gone out the window. Sadly, for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, memory, in general, gradually disappears.

Recently, friends have expressed frustration when their loved ones who have dementia do not remember their names. These friends interpret this lack of memory as some sort of intentional insult. Not so. No one with dementia intentionally forgets a name. I know. I had to get over this “insult” myself.

My mother had Alzheimer’s for more than 15 years. During the beginning years, she forgot names, possibly a symptom of dementia or just normal aging. Normal aging is what I have when I forget names — embarrassing, but not Alzheimer’s. After three years of forgetting names, forgetting to pay bills (Mother was an accountant) and forgetting to cut off the stove, Mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The neurologist suggested I read “The 36-Hour Day,” a depressing book but essential to my learning what this disease meant for my mother and me. I would soon become a “caregiver.”

Over years of caring for Mother, I learned to blame her forgetfulness on the disease, not her. I learned that her forgetting my name was not intentional. I learned that the kids she used to read stories to were not recognizable as grown-ups. Mother was nice to them, but they were now strangers. The “kids” eventually stopped visiting because of Mother’s confusion. I tried to explain to these relatives that she still loved visitors, but that people affected by Alzheimer’s remember faces from the past rather than the present. It is not an insult that the kids grew up and that Mother only remembers them as children. The tangles in Mother’s brain simply kept her from remembering names and faces.

When I finally absorbed the “What’s in a name?” concept, I realized my name was not the most important connection with my mother. I began to focus on our loving years together and considered myself lucky that I was still someone very important to Mother — sometimes I would be her sister Bess or her mother Betty or that nice person who took care of her a lot.

Meanwhile, I ask my friends to get their loved ones diagnosed after exhibiting additional symptoms, such as personality changes, forgetting medications or getting lost while driving, not just forgetting names. I ask these new caregivers to educate themselves once a diagnosis is made and to try not to be insulted — it is the disease, not their loved ones. Of course, taking this advice is easier said than done. If you are a caregiver, try not to focus on the hurt of a loved one’s changing behavior, but focus on the many years of loving this person. It helps! Romeo and Juliet had to ignore one another’s names and focus on the love they had for each other. A caregiver has to do the same.

Come to the Alzheimer’s Walk and Education Fair on Saturday, 9 a.m. to noon, at First Baptist Church, 113 N. Harvey St., Washington, for free information about Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. For more information, call Emily Albera at 252-944-3446 or go online to www.alznc.org/washingtonwalk.

Emily Albera is a former caregiver for her mother.