A photo album full of black and white photos. An elderly person's hand touches one of the photos, and a younger person's hand is on top of theirs

Sharing Lasting Memories, Even With Dementia

On an early spring afternoon in April 2008, our family welcomed a photographer and newspaper journalist into our living room. They had visited us a few days earlier to talk with me and my mom, Christine, about our lives as mother and daughter as we navigated the challenges of my mom’s dementia. That first afternoon when the subject of cooking came up, I turned to my mom and said, “Mother, I believe Dave and Nancy (not their real names) would love a taste of your baked apples!”

Without hesitation, my mom had said, “I’ll make you some!”

Sharing lasting memories with my mother

So two days later, here the photographer and reporter were back, anticipating something delicious from my mom! I remember her lovely appearance that afternoon as she descended from her bedroom into the living room, wearing a soft wool sweater with pearls and slacks. At that time she could still apply her makeup. Even at age 91, she was a pretty lady.

Earlier that day, my mom had carefully carved out the center from six perfectly shaped apples and added her special mixture of sugars and cinnamon with a dash of salt before they were popped into the oven to bake until done. At the store we had purchased real whipped cream as a topper, and things were all set for the afternoon. Tea was ready for brewing, and a tray laid with napkins, forks and teacups.

As Mother entered the room, Dave and Nancy remarked, “Christine, you promised us a taste of your baked apples!” Upon hearing these words, my mom was beaming with pleasure.

“All right, just a minute!” whereupon she and I disappeared into the kitchen to heat the apples briefly in the microwave before adding the whipped cream topping and presenting Dave and Nancy with a masterpiece fit for a king!

It was just a month later that my mom on a visit back to Virginia with my brother fell and fractured her hip. That accident marked the end of our mother’s mobility along with much of her self-confidence and independence.

Sharing memories through storytelling

Fast forward ahead ten years, my mom has passed, and I am commuting to northern Ohio to coordinate a program of music and storytelling in an area memory care unit of a retirement community. There are nine residents whose families have sent us some photos from their childhood days.

For this afternoon of storytelling, we have printed out a photo for each storyteller and their volunteer along with a few suggested questions meant to encourage the story behind the photo.

As we all get settled in pairs for the looked-forward-to time together, the volunteer I am observing points to the first photo showing two barefoot young girls aged approximately 8-12 with one holding the reins of two workhorses that are pulling a large load of straw.

The 93-year-old storyteller, upon seeing herself, exclaims, “That’s me!” And we laugh as a huge grin covers her face! Her words are captured by a mini iPad with tiny mic. A few other remarks are made by the volunteer, who is impressed that such a young girl was in charge of draft horses. The smile of satisfaction and pride on the storyteller’s face tells it all.

Now, this storyteller happens to be among the least verbal of the eight other residents scattered around the large living space. But her few words and her facial expression of pride and pleasure make her story complete for her family to later enjoy.

I am reminded too of this same resident’s spontaneous singing of “Silent Night” in German at a recent chorus rehearsal for our Christmas family celebration. (As I have learned, music reaches areas of the brain not affected by dementia.)

Connecting with the family caregiver

Connecting with the family caregiver has been key, as she has provided some helpful information about this storyteller’s early life that we would not have known otherwise. The family caregiver cautioned us volunteers, however, about stirring up perhaps some unpleasant memories, as her mom’s life was not easy during her early years in pre-WWII Europe.

But starting with a photo of a home where she had lived, we gradually introduced the photo with the draft horses and hay wagon. Our goal is eventually for the storyteller’s family to have some stories (though brief) recorded in their mother’s voice to be cherished as a family legacy.

With sensitivity from motivated volunteers and staff, a few memories are yet ready to be unlocked and shared!

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