One of my favorite activities in the memory care unit is reminiscing. Not only do I learn more about the people I am caring for, but they also benefit from the sharing of stories. As they recall bits and pieces of the past, the emotions tied to the memories flood into the conversation. “My father made all of us go to college,” the resident stated proudly. “I didn’t want to go, but he said I had to get an education so that I could support myself. I thought I’d be a nurse, but he made me go to teacher’s school. He knew me better than I new myself!” This woman was so proud of her father and everyone in the room could feel it! The conversation led others to discuss their education, or lack of it.
At home, you cannot depend on other people’s memories to bolster your loved one. Instead, you can help them remember a number of ways. First, you can bring out the old photo album. Though she may have some vision difficulties, if you allow her to hold her photos just right and begin to describe the photos, you may have some luck in hearing a story you had never heard before. In the group setting, we also use electronic tablets to show residents photos of what we are discussing. Sometimes the photos will ignite a memory and fire up a discussion.
One man told me that his father was mostly nonverbal. When he did speak, he frequently didn’t make sense. However, when the man would show pictures and talk for a little while (10 minutes or more) the father’s spoken words would begin to clear! At times his responses would become so clear and appropriate that it was difficult for the son to believe his father had been unable to speak clearly minutes before. Curious as to why that happened, I spoke with a speech pathologist who said that the man had given his father vocabulary – appropriate words to use – as he spoke about the photo. This technique ‘primed the pump!’ It gave the man the words he needed to communicate about the topic with his son. Keep this in mind when reminiscing with your loved one!
Second, keep to one topic. Though you and I may enjoy jumping from one idea to another, these kind of conversations cause confusion in those with dementia. They are best served by staying to one topic. I try to keep the topic related to the time of year if possible. For instance, in the summertime you may want to show your loved one a photo of a child enjoying some hot weather activity, such as baling hay for someone raised in the country. A photo of a child enjoying the open fire hydrant may bring back the glee of growing up in the hot city. When using an electronic tablet (I love to use my 7″ Kindle, but a 10″ is best!), google what you are looking for and click on images. For instance, google ‘open fire hydrant children,’ click ‘images’ and show your loved one the pictures.
Third, ask questions that involve all of the senses. ‘What did that water feel like? Was it cold? It looks as though it’s coming out really quickly! Did it hurt your skin? What did the city smell like in the summer? How did it feel? Who opened the hydrants for you? Were there any special games you played or did you just run through the water? Did you ever get knocked down by the water?’ Ask a variety of types of questions. If your loved one is mostly nonverbal, stick to questions that they can answer with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or with a head nod or shake.
Finally, keep these reminiscing sessions as long or as short as your loved one can tolerate. You will know when they are done. They will fidget, look away, or even tell you they have had enough. I’ve noticed that some topics are more attractive than others and that time of day makes a difference. We usually have success with reminiscing after lunch and after dinner. The residents are relaxed from the meal and appear to enjoy the chance to chit-chat a little. As a child, I remember the neighbors and friends coming to visit for chats after dinner. Perhaps this is a bit of their past that they also remember and enjoy.
Have fun reminiscing with your loved one! If they like to talk, it may be fun to tape their responses to share with others in your family. Writing down the stories to share with others and to preserve the memories is also an excellent idea. One of the reasons we do so much reminiscing with our residents is so that we can tell them their stories when they can no longer speak. What a gift to be able to show your loved one a picture they had told you about and to retell that precious memory! A true gift of love!