We just attended a family reunion and so I’m thinking a lot about family connections. One of our favorite things to do is to listen to my 96 year-old brother tell us about earlier times. He is cognitively healthy, but even those with dementia can often share experiences from the past. They may not be able to remember recent events, but they can often remember more distant ones. Take advantage of this to document family history. Your loved one will enjoy the chance to reminisce and you will learn things about your family that you can pass on to your younger relatives.
No matter how you go about reminiscing, do take notes. If you feel uncomfortable writing, or if they feel uncomfortable with you doing so, consider a tape recorder. Actually, most cell phones have the ability to record now. Set the recorder up within easy hearing distance and in a few moments, both of you will have forgotten it. You can also video, but that is more intrusive, and harder to ignore.
Start a conversation about the past. Once your loved one has started talking, avoid interrupting as much as you can. For example, only ask questions that keep them talking. Be careful about asking clarifying questions because they interrupt the flow of memory and may cause even more confusion. Just relax and find someone else to quiz later. A note here. Dementia often causes times to be confused. In her nineties, my mother used to tell me stories about when she was a child…but she’d have people from the present, such as my brother, in the story as well. Don’t try to correct. The goal is to provide your loved one with an enjoyable time, and the two of you of a fun time together. The stories you get are bonuses!
Use photos. A wonderful way to get anyone to talk is to bring out the family album…or often that overflowing box of unfiled photos. Ask your loved one to tell you if they recognize anyone in the photos. If they do, they will often tell you something about the person as well. Keep your notebook handy! Again, once they start telling a story, avoid interrupting. Don’t worry if they get off track, or if like my mom, they get mixed up. As long as they are sharing memories with you, it’s good. The upside is that your loved one may put a name to some of those until now, unknown people in your photos. Most of your newer photos are computerized. If you are like me, you’ve uploaded most of your old ones as well. Consider making a special file of the photos that would be of most interest to your loved one. That way you won’t confuse them with unwanted photos flashing by as you look for one you want to talk about.
Use music. For this to be effective, you need to know what kind of music you loved one likes. Play the music and ask them to tell you about it. To get them started ask questions like what kinds of activities did they do when that music was popular, or what does a song mean to them. Have the words to the songs available and sing along with your loved one. It doesn’t matter if you can sing or not…or if they can, for that matter. The goal is to have fun with the music. Don’t neglect rhythm. Some people are more into rhythm than they are melody. Clap, tap your feet, even dance with them. My mother couldn’t carry a tune but she loved to sing and dance. Even when she was in a wheelchair and couldn’t recognize her grandchildren, we danced. It was a time both of us valued.
The next blog will be about other ways you can work with your loved one to help them to reminisce while adding to your own family history.
For more information about Lewy body disorders, read our books:
A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia
Helen and James Whitworth are not doctors, lawyers or social workers. As informed caregivers, they share the information here for educational purposes only. It should never be used instead of a professional's advice.