Fishing for Memories: Using storytelling to maintain memories in those with Alzheimer’s

Searching for Grandma

Husband at Lake Metonga, WI. Beautiful country!

My husband and I recently returned from a fishing trip to the North Woods Country of Wisconsin. We did two types of fishing there; he drowned a few worms and we ‘fished’ for information about his grandmother.

He knew her well. She died in 1977 at 101 years old – her mind sharp as a tack.  And, though she wrote long letters to each grandchild on their birthdays and regaled them with stories of meeting the Native Americans at the trading post/ general store as a child, these memories were lost.

No one had kept the letters. My husband regrets tossing them away in his ignorance.  Those stories are now mere shadows, and incomplete ones at that.  Patching them together to create a whole picture of this wondrous adventurer, teacher and writer was no longer possible. The matriarch of a bootlegging family took the stories with her to the grave.

Finding the right fishing spot

Embroidery piece believed to have been hand made by my husband’s grandmother.

We drove to Crandon, Wisconsin in hopes of finding little scraps of history to make that picture of Grandma more solid and complete.  There we found some of the past… photos, glowing obituaries, a bench recently donated to the town in honor of the family, and an embroidered pillowcase with the names of folks believed to have belonged to the bicycle club in the 1890’s…  also, believed to have been embroidered by my husband’s remarkable grandma!

We visited the grave sites and the former properties of the family.  It was a humbling experience.  Dear husband kept remarking on how amazing it was to walk the same streets his ancestors had walked.  He wondered what force pulled his family from the East Coast to settle this wilderness.  But, most importantly, he marveled at his foolishness for not listening to her more – for not saving those letters and for neglecting to take the time to learn about her as a person.

Thoughts about Memory Care

His ‘journey’ made me more thoughtful about ours.  We are caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.  These terrible, relentless conditions are attacking our loved ones’ memories.  They often don’t know what they ate for breakfast and they certainly don’t remember what they did yesterday.  However, the strength of their brains lies in two quarters: they know how they feel about what’s going on around them and they know what happened long ago in their lives!

These strengths can be used by us to help maintain the neural connections they still possess AND to add value to their days and ours. By asking them to share their stories and by actively taking part (listening), we help them:

Maintain their neural connections

By telling their story, our loved one recalls events and descriptions, puts those ideas together in a cohesive manner, AND wraps it all up in lovely language to share with you!  As a result, those neural connections start firing and working together to produce a finished product – a recollection or a story.  Encourage her to tell the story again and again, and new details and nuances emerge.  She may recall more and more of the detail OR she may be inventing something new.  Either way, it’s a win-win situation.  She is maintaining those connections about that story. A very special exercise and gift!

Make stronger bonds with care partners

Through storytelling, she cements a stronger bond with you.  As dementia progresses, that part of the brain that handles decision-making and executive functions is failing.  But, the part that deals with emotions frequently is not.  Your interest in her story, your questioning and laughing with her, makes her ‘feel’ good. She may not remember that you are her daughter (In her mind, her daughter may be a 12 year-old tomboy with skinned knees and bare feet, not a polished 50-something working mother.)  Instead, she may regard you as a ‘familiar friend’.  But, consider how much more connected you feel to your friend as you tell her a story. You watch as she listens intently to you.  She feels just that way – as though she is sharing a strong bond with you, her listener.  It feels good to have someone to share the past with…

Gain an improved sense of identity

Everyone possesses a sense of identity, however, when dementia strikes, that sense could be shaken to its core.  Throughout the stages of dementia, the loved one may be reverting to a time in the past… maybe even a time before you, the care partner, were living!  Telling stories about how they grew up, the chores and activities they enjoyed and the people they shared their life with, builds their sense of self.  It reaffirms their belief that they DID experience a certain event and that hold an important and worthy place in the scheme of things.

Most of the memories shared will be those with strong emotions attached.  Don’t fear the tears…  they will come sometimes.  Use them as an ‘excuse’ to hug your loved one and to share in their sorrow… or their joy!

Feel good for a while

Listening to their tales is a real ego booster.  As you add questions and laugh or cry with them, they capture the feeling of personhood.  They are assured that they are important. And, that someone cares for them.

A study has shown that emotions are carried in those with dementia for more than  twenty minutes.  The researcher showed those with healthy brains and those with dementia a happy movie.  Twenty minutes afterwards, the healthy-brained participants could tell her details about the movie – who was in it, what happened, was it happy or sad.  Those with dementia couldn’t remember the details, BUT they could tell the researcher that they felt happy…  ALL of them.

Proof that time spent sharing old stories will positive emotions – even after you are done talking.  Maya Angelou was right, “People will forget what you did.  People will forget what you said.  But, people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Reelin’ that story in!

Please learn from my husband and his mistake!  Time is precious and those memories and stories from their past are also part of you!  If your loved one is family, you may recognize some characteristics that make your kin unique.   If your loved one is not blood related, you will learn more about them and how they came to the place where both of your paths crossed!  Both of you will be blessed; you will learn more history and they will keep those memories alive.

I hope you are encouraged by our experience to do some fishing of your own! You can check out more tips on reminiscing HERE and HERE.