“If only you could have gotten to know Dad before the Alzheimer’s.”
Have you ever said something like this? Sometimes you may feel as if Alzheimer’s or dementia has not only stolen memories but also diminished part of what made your loved one special. You may long for ways to preserve those memories and keep them alive.
One avenue for doing that is creating a “memory book”—a homemade compilation of photos, stories, and mementoes that help tell the life history of a person with dementia. A memory book can help create a bridge to the past, as well as a connection to the present, for a person living with memory impairment.
Special Benefits of a Memory Book
While most people enjoy looking through scrapbooks and old photos, a memory book can offer particular benefits for a person living with dementia:
A way to celebrate lasting memories. Often, people with dementia have difficulty recalling recent events but can clearly recall events from many years ago. A memory book draws on those long-term memories, emphasizing what the person can remember, rather than what they cannot. You may be surprised by the number of long-ago memories that your loved one can still recall clearly. Recalling favorite memories can help return a sense of self to the person with dementia, building self-esteem and a sense of wellbeing.
A tool for redirecting. Many people with dementia enjoy reminiscing. Caregivers can offer the book as a way of comforting the person while in unfamiliar places (such as a hospital) or for “redirecting” should the person exhibit difficult behavior, such as agitation or aggression.
An activity to share. A memory book is also a conversation-starter. Your loved one may enjoy looking through a memory book with children, grandchildren or other young visitors.
A resource for caregivers. Professional caregivers can review the memory book, too, to learn more about the person; in some cases that information may help in developing a care plan. Many caregivers find they can connect more easily when they know something about a person’s career, family, and interests.
How-To Tips to Create a Memory Book
If you’d like to create a memory book, begin by assembling photographs, documents, postcards, letters, certificates, and other items. Gather any other important mementoes and, if they don’t fit in a book, take photos of them.
Try to involve your loved one with dementia in the project as much as he or she is able. Start by asking the person questions that will help bring memories back. What is the person proud of? What does your loved one want other people to know about his or her life? What are some favorite memories? You might be surprised by how much the person can recognize and recall, with the right prompting. In many cases, a person with dementia may remember their childhood better than recent times; be sure to ask about childhood pets, family life, hobbies, friends, holidays, and special events.
If your loved one’s communication abilities are limited, ask family and friends what they admire and like most about the person?
Organizing Your Memory Book
You might begin by assembling a basic timeline of the person’s life – noting important dates and events starting with birth and childhood and through adulthood, college, military service, marriage, children, and career. Include memories of your loved one’s parents and siblings in birth order. It’s not necessary to obtain exact dates; focus instead on putting together “key moments” in chronological order.
Choose a few photos and ask your loved one about them: What’s happening here? Where was this photo taken? If your loved one can’t answer specific questions, make a simple statement – “Everyone is smiling; this must’ve been a big day,” and allow the person to reflect or add as memory serves. Make a note of the person’s comments and try to use those words and ideas as much as possible in the book. Invite the person to help choose which items should go into the memory book, too.
If you don’t have photos or other mementoes, be creative. A map of a former hometown, or a current photo of an alma mater, can help represent a special memory.
How you organize and assemble the book is up to you. Do involve your loved one as much as he or she is able.
As you work on the book together, he or she may ask why you’re making this book. Explain that you would like to share an enjoyable activity together and find out more about the person. You might also say that the book will be a gift for a child or grandchild to help them learn more about their heritage.
A “memory book” can take other forms. If someone in your family is a whiz on the computer, he or she might assemble digital photos, along with favorite music, into a video that your loved one may watch on an iPad or similar device. You might even consider assembling mementoes into a “memory box” for your loved one to take out now and then for reminiscing.
Whatever format it takes, a memory book is something that you and your loved one can enjoy over and over again, along with family and friends. It will help caregivers get to know your loved one, and could serve as a tool for calming the person during difficult moments. Ultimately, the book can become a cherished heirloom that future generations can enjoy.