Why People with Alzheimer’s are Unable to Recognize their Loved Ones

As Alzheimer’s disease and related forms of dementia advance, the ability to recognize the faces of loved ones diminishes. As it does, family relationships often diminish as well and many people with Alzheimer’s become isolated and lonely.Why People with Alzheimer's are Unable to Recognize their Loved Ones

A new study sheds more light on why facial recognition is impaired in Alzheimer’s, bringing new understanding to the disease.

Why People with Alzheimer’s are Unable to Recognize their Loved Ones

As Alzheimer’s progresses, facial recognition and memories fade. When people with Alzheimer’s can no longer remember the faces of their loves ones, it can bring emotional hurt and turmoil, causing families to distance themselves.

A new study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and led by Dr. Sven Joubert, PhD, a researcher at the Centre de Recherche de l’Institut Universitaire de Geriatrie de Montreal, and a professor with the Department of Psychology at Universite de Montreal, looked into why people with Alzheimer’s were no longer able to recognize the faces of their loved ones.

For the study, researchers recruited people with Alzheimer’s as well as people in good health, and analyzed their ability to perceive cars and faces in photos that were either upside down or right side up. Dr. Joubert summarized the team’s findings stating:

“The results for people with Alzheimer’s were similar to those in the control group in terms of answer accuracy and the time to process the upside-down faces and cars. To perform these tasks, the brain must perform a local analysis of the various image components perceived by the eye. However, with the upright faces, people with Alzheimer’s were much slower and made more mistakes than the healthy individuals. This leads us to believe that holistic face recognition in particular becomes impaired. Subjects with Alzheimer’s disease also demonstrated normal recognition of the upright cars, a task that in theory does not require holistic processing. This suggests that Alzheimer’s leads to visual perception problems specifically with faces.”

It is important to note that holistic perception impairment is noticeable in the early stages of the disease.

How These Findings Could Encourage Family Members

A recent survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association found that over 40% of respondents said it was “pointless” to stay in contact with a loved one after they are unable to recognize the faces of family and friends. Alzheimer’s advocates caution against this way of thinking and boast the many benefits that come from visiting with people who have advanced dementia.

Researchers from the latest study to investigate the lack of facial recognition in people with Alzheimer’s hope that their study helps family members better understand what is happening to their loved one.

They also hope that their findings will encourage families to look for new ways to delay the impairment of holistic perception and inspire new treatment methods.

Did you know that people with Alzheimer’s are unable to recognize their loved ones as the disease progresses? Have you experienced this among your family or loved ones? Share your thoughts and stories with us in the comments below.

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Please leave your thoughts and comments

  • Betty Ann Stainbrook

    My mother-in-law has stage two Alzheimer’s and is still able to recognize many people, know who is visiting her and most of all still can very much at the best of times convey how she feels. The biggest problem is her daughter who declared her incapacited soon after mom was forced to enter a secure facility has on many occasions stated mom should not have contact, experience or reintroduced to anything she once loved or enjoyed.
    I find her daughter to be doing what is best for her own ability or lack there of in accepting mom’s Alzheimer’s and doing what is best for mom. It has been a constant battle is day one of mom being placed in care.

    • Mary Lee Simmonsm

      The problem is not your mother-in-law. The problem is that the daughter is the one who can not handle it. Some day the daughter will regret not spending time with her

      • Betty Ann Stainbrook

        So very true. This poor lady was taken from her home directly to a secure facility and force to go without contact from loved ones as this was the what the daughter said was policy for the facily. I volunteer with Pallivative care, Alzheimer’s and Demtia patients which is to the contrary of any training I have had.
        My husband, his father and myself took mom out of the facily for a ride in the country, Tim Horton’s for a quick lunch and a short stop at Walmart. Mom so enjoyed it saying it was an amazing day.
        Two days later we were informed that mom was no longer to even leave her ward, not even to go to the family room for dinner or the bistro between are both in her facility where my father in law also lives in an independent suite. The horror on his face was devasting when he was told this.
        All this the spite a brother who want to be actively involved with his mother were the sister is unable to handle it.
        My father in law get invited for special occasions and mom does not. Mom gphas asked me why on several occasions why people think she is contagious!
        Tears of sadden for this special person.

  • laura

    Hi my dad knows our name but no longer see s us has his daughters and son. I dont know who he thinks we are. He askes has he any family. He also has bladder cancer and c o p d. Its hard watching dad die slowly with all 3 things wrong. We have not told him how bad he is there is no point. We take each min has it comes. Either he has a urine infection or he needs to use oxygen or he just simply sleeps. He remembers nothing of where he is or mum dying 18 years ago. He see s things or people that are not there. We find it hard like when he is looking for something he dreamt of . He does that a lot moving hands talking in his sleep. He is in a care home but we go every day to see him.

  • bruce

    i recently had to put my wife of 58 years into permanent nursing care as i could no longer cope with her dementia by myself ( we have no family to help) she no longer recognises me as her husband but thinks i am her father. she knows she has a husband but thinks he is away working all the time and cant get to see her. she also has no recollection of when i have visited her and thinks each visit is the first time. i can only cuddle her and reassure her that she is loved very much.

    • caitlinburm

      I am so very sorry to hear that, Bruce. Thank you for sharing your story with us. We are thinking of you and your wife and keeping you both in our hearts and minds.

    • Laurie Head Atkinson

      My dad is having the same problem, Bruce. They have been married almost 52 years and she thinks “a strange man is in her house and he is watching television.” It is sad. The picture that she holds in her mind is of a much younger spouse. She thinks my 81-year-old dad is her father or sometimes even just a stranger. My grandfather (Mom’s dad) had this same illness.

  • Deborah Keys

    For more than 5 years I was the full time caregiver for my sweet mom. She lived with me, and I kept a journal of our journey, the good, the bad & the ugly. Selected excerpts from my journal are now published in my book (endorsed by Joan Lunden), “Why Do You Think I Call You Mama?” available on Amazon or a sneak peek at redemption-press.com. You will find yourself laughing and crying on the same page along with tips and tactics that were successful for me and Mom. Let my book assure you that you are not alone dealing with this horrible disease. Thank you, Deborah Keys.

  • Rose Maconi

    My older brother cried when my Mom failed to recognize him when he visited. My sympathies always lie more with the families than with the patient. They are blissful in their disease.
    Mom once asked an African-American caregiver who she was. The girl answered jokingly “I’m your daughter-in-law.” Mom replied “you can’t be”. “Why not?” “Because you are not Italian”. There was always that little spark of memory there.

  • Debbie McDaniel

    Even if I introduce myself when I arrive (Hey Mama, I’m Debbie-I used to be your little girl), she will later ask if I’m her Mama or her sister. I let her think I’m whoever she wants me to be.
    She has also introduced one of the wonderful caregivers as her husband and I always smile at my new young, beautiful African American step Dad

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