“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Marcel Proust

In the United States, we observe Memorial Day on the last Monday in May, recognizing American service members who’ve died. It wasn’t always this way: its origins have been disputed regionally, the day has changed, and the original purpose was to honor Confederate soldiers lost during the Civil War.

It’s interesting to read the official version, but to my mind, that’s beside the point. The main idea is about honoring those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice. Sometimes we get so caught up in details, in trivia, that we completely miss the larger point.

When it comes to dementia, we as care partners can get mixed up about what the point is, so mired in meaningless minutia, that we miss the point altogether.

I’ve too often witnessed a person living with dementia–clearly glorying in telling a cherished story–get shut down by a family member: “No, that’s not how it happened. I was born first! You’re telling about when Gina was born!” or, “No, we didn’t meet at the Lamplighter Lounge! We met at Amy’s party. You must be thinking of that tart you were seeing before me.”

Dementia aside, we seem okay with accepting the notion that we all have our own truth. We know that multiple eyewitness accounts of an event will result in multiple differing accounts of that event. We evolved beings can live with that, but when it comes to our parents or partners erroneously reporting details that in fact have zero bearing on the overall point, we lose it. We won’t stand for it!

When we nitpick someone living with dementia because he’s not accurately recalling the details of a story by heart, we’re getting bogged down with trivial concerns. Why can’t we let people we love–people whose brains are under attack–make an error and graciously accept it? Why are we more compassionate with a stranger telling his own truth?

Becoming familiar with the concepts of confabulation and conflation in dementia allows care partners to understand what’s really happening when a loved one is telling a story and mixing up the details.

“In psychiatry, Confabulation (verb: confabulate) is a memory disturbance, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confabulation) (Emphasis is mine.)

Conflation happens when two or more distinct pieces of information are combined to create a new “fact,” which can be caused by or result in confabulation.

Understanding that confabulation and conflation happen–frequently–with dementia allows us to offer grace notes to the people we love. Rather than getting caught up in the details, try thinking about it differently.

When a person living with dementia is telling a story, celebrate! Engage them. Listen closely. If you have the presence of mind, whip out your phone and record it.

There’s always the possibility you’re the one recalling the story incorrectly, but if not, celebrate the wins in this moment: your loved one is alive and engaging with you. Your loved one is able to speak, to produce a coherent narrative.

Your loved one is trying to connect with you, telling a story that has meaning and resonance for her. To truly understand the story, listen for the emotion behind the words and the details. That’s where the real story lies. That’s the detail that actually matters.

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”― Marcel Proust


REMINDER: you are never, ever alone! No matter how isolated you may feel, the truth is that I’m right here on the other side of the screen and I am always rooting for you! Reach out any time, social media links are below.

Christy Turner is the founder of DementiaSherpa.com (CTC Dementia Care Management) and has enjoyed the privilege of working with over 1,045 people living with dementia and their families. Follow on Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Periscope, Pinterest, Twitter, and YouTube. Content varies daily across platforms.