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Preserving memories for the Alzheimer’s patient

How do you preserve memories for someone with memory loss? We are each a product of a lifetime of living, of choices made, of memories of family and friends, of places and events that touched us along the way. What if you could help your loved one hold onto those pieces of personal history for just a little longer? For someone suffering from Alzheimer’s, having memories protected is essential to maintaining a sense of identity for as long as possible. Here are some suggestions for enriching your family member’s life by memory preservation:

Save the scraps.

You know that shoe box of old photos you have stored away? Pull them out and get organized. Take the time to share pictures with your loved one with Alzheimer’s. Let him or her tell you the stories of the people or the places. Old photographs can trigger powerful memories of the past and may help your loved recall the past in a way you didn’t think was still possible. If you can, make a scrapbook of old photos, ticket stubs, programs, or other saved items you find, something tangible for your family member to hold and flip through in lucid moments.

Testing 1, 2, 3…

Sit down with a tape recorder and let your elder talk to you. You can give some direction if you like, perhaps suggesting a topic or an event from the past, but then sit back and let him or her tell you the story. You might discover some version of the past you never knew existed. This time you spend together is a human connection that is valuable for both of you, so don’t underestimate the power of conversation. If you aren’t able to devote the time to record personal stories yourself, you can find services online that will conduct short interviews and record them for your family. Not only will your loved one be touched that you want to know about the past, but you will also have those memories preserved for future generations.

Write it down so you won’t forget.

Journaling, like recording an oral history, is one of the best ways to preserve memories. If your loved one is still capable of writing, provide a notebook for him or her to record thoughts, stories, or feelings. Perhaps your family member is still using electronic devices like tablets or computers, both of which have apps or programs to make the task easier and more accessible. Another option is for you to pick up that pen and do the writing yourself. Take some time if you can to jot down anecdotes that he or she wants to share with you.

Listen to the golden oldies.

Music is a powerful memory trigger for many people, including those with Alzheimer’s disease. Listening to favorite tunes from a bygone era can act as a pacifier to an elderly person in an agitated state or just transport him or her to a joyful time from the past. Let music help engage even patients with late Alzheimer’s disease by calming them with soothing folk songs, classical music, or childhood favorites. Music is one area that can allow connections, no matter what stage of Alzheimer’s disease.

The nose knows.

Like hearing, the sense of smell can prompt memories in a way that talking and reading don’t. You’ll never forget the way your grandmother’s house smelled of freshly baked cookies or your father’s cologne. The Alzheimer’s patient will also make connections with scents and fragrances that bring back long-term memories. Perfume bottles, scented candles, room sprays, traditional foods or baked treats all have a special aroma of their own that can draw out memories for your aging family member. We have five senses that work differently to recall life experiences, so don’t forget the importance of all the senses when trying to enhance recall for your Alzheimer’s patient.
Just one bite.

Why not take it one step further and prepare some favorite childhood foods or treats? Meals take memory to another level, as they have the ability to transport someone to favorite times, be it celebrations, holidays, or other special events. If your loved one is able, have him or her join you in the kitchen to prepare secret family recipes, favorite desserts, or just enjoy the simple pleasure of cooking a beloved meal. Chances are good that you and your family member will be able to remember breaking bread in all sorts of memorable ways. If helping in the kitchen is also a thing of the past, you can bring the special food to the patient with Alzheimer’s. He or she might not recall what made a meal significant but will still be honored by the effort and love that a home-cooked meal represents.

Keep in mind that not any one method of memory preservation will work for all Alzheimer’s patients. Just as you have good and bad days, so does your loved one, and you may need to find patience and acceptance. Ask questions, but don’t correct mistakes or change the direction of the story. This is his or her memory, and it is okay if it isn’t the same version as you may remember. Confusion is part of this disease process, but you don’t want to draw attention to it. You also don’t want to turn a journaling or recording session into an exam or an interrogation, so keep it light and let your family member direct the interview or other experience. Time limits need to be considered as well. Most people with strong cognitive skills could not persist with recording memories for hours on end, so adjust your expectations and don’t overtask or stress the one you are helping. Remember the goal is for him or her to have the opportunity to cherish memories, and if you make that your priority, you too will be rewarded.