Dec 16, 2012

Helping Alzheimer’s Patients Remember

Most people think Alzheimer’s patients have no memories, but many of them do if you prompt them to remember.

By Mary Marley
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Helping Alzheimer’s Patients Remember
Marie Marley
The elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease lay in her bed. She hadn’t sat up or talked for ages and she didn’t recognize her loved ones.

Then a surprising thing happened. Her family began playing a DVD of beautiful footage of the ocean—the woman’s favorite place to go. It sparked memories. She became calm and a smile crossed her face. It was a true time of joy for her family.

Yes, grandma was still “there.”

Most people think Alzheimer’s patients have no memories, but many of them do if you prompt them to remember.

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Carol Steinberg, Executive Vice President of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, says
“Short-term memory goes first, so it’s best to try to elicit memories through activities relating to their earlier years.”

There are several ways you can prompt dementia patients to recall memories:

  1. Sit with them and look at old family photo albums together. These often bring back memories you thought were lost forever.
  2. Sing songs with them that were popular in their youth. Surprisingly, many people with dementia can sing and remember the words to songs even in the later stages of the disease when they barely talk anymore. Equally surprising is that patients who can hardly walk may get up and start dancing.
  3. Watch movies or old TV shows they used to like. These, too, can lead to recalling fond memories.
  4. Get them involved in decorating the house or doing crafts for holidays. Holidays usually leave an emotional impact on people, and those emotions can help Alzheimer’s patients remember holidays past. 
  5. Tap into their senses, such as the sense of smell. The aroma of apple pie, for example, may lead to vivid memories of their grandmother baking back when they were a child.

Steinberg recalls an incident from many years ago before she was at the Alzheimer’s Foundation.
“I didn’t know much about Alzheimer’s disease back then,” she says. “Once when we were visiting my parents my daughters were collecting information for the family tree, so we asked my mother the name of the hometown where my father’s parents came from. We didn’t even think to ask my dad because he had Alzheimer’s disease, and we felt certain he wouldn’t remember it.”

“You can imagine our shock when he chimed in with the right name just as my mother was getting ready to answer.” Steinberg says that caused her family both guilt and joy. Guilt because they hadn’t brought her father into the conversation. Joy because they could see he was “still with us.”
The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has just found a new way to help spur and permanently record the memories of people with Alzheimer’s disease through collaboration with Legacy Keepers, a nationwide legacy and family history preservation service.

Legacy Keepers arranges for personal historians from its national network to interview people about their life, then it engages writers, graphic designers, filmmakers and audio, text and video editors to produce professionally-done keepsake audio CDs, books or high definition videos commemorating their life or the life of a loved one.

Legacy Keepers’ services will be an important addition to the Foundation’s collection of tools that help caregivers of people with dementia cope with the emotional aspects of the disease.

Steinberg emphasizes,
“The most important thing about this project is that it will provide something family members can hold onto. It will give them a lasting connection to their loved one. It will help them with the long good-bye.”

Marie Marley, PhD is the the award-winning author of Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy.

Come Back Early Today:
A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy

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Original content the Alzheimer's Reading Room