By: Linda MacDonald, CSW, Certified Senior Advisor, Dementia Care Specialist.
CREATING HAPPY MEMORIES
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou
People living with Alzheimer’s and dementia can, and do, have the capacity to enjoy life. Even those in the later stages of the disease experience happiness, albeit their ability to remember happy moments is short-lived. Many Alzheimer’s and dementia patients no longer see time as a continuum of weeks, days or hours. Rather, they live from moment to moment. Family members often struggle with how to make those moments joyous. As those closest to patients know, the feeling of happiness will usually outlast the memory of the event. Therefore, caregivers that create satisfying moments for their loved ones help them feel included, relaxed and joyful.
For years I managed a memory care facility and one of my fondest memories was playing the piano for the residents. Music is known to evoke emotions that bring forth memories. One resident in particular, Anita, would smile every time I played “I left my heart in San Francisco.” She told me that the song reminded her of her late husband. It was their song. Each time I played it, she sat down next to me on the bench and sang with delight. Afterwards, Anita would recount a story of their life together. As her dementia progressed, Anita needed more prompting, but that song would still give her that same feeling of joy, and a mention of her husband’s name was enough to get her to recount her beautiful story once again. The experience left Anita feeling blissful, even after the memory had faded.
Short-term vs. Long-term Memory
Short-term memory loss is one of the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. This includes forgetting recent events. Dementia patients with short-term memory loss will repeat questions or behaviors. They will forget what they had for breakfast, where they parked the car, or even when they last spoke with a close family member. This forgetfulness may cause confusion, sadness, panic – even anger – because the affected person knows that something is wrong, but they have no control over it.
When talking to someone with short-term memory loss, it is best to avoid open-ended questions that require the person to provide elaborate answers, such as “When was the last time you saw your daughter?” Rather, ask questions that require a “yes” or “no” answer. Try not to use the word, “remember.” It puts too much pressure on the individual. Instead, refresh their memory by relaying a story or event. If they don’t remember, they may enjoy the story now.
Long-term memory is a function of the brain that allows you to remember something that happened years or decades ago. Patients with dementia often retain their long-term memory for years after diagnosis. Examples of long-term memory include recollection of work skills, birthdays, weddings and other significant life events, such as living through a war. As the disease progresses, the concern with long-term memory is figuring out how to trigger it.
As a Senior Advisor, I am always searching for ways to elicit memories and create “moments of joy” for my clients. I try to gather as much information as I can from family members and friends to better understand my client’s life story. I often use photos, scents, music, books, or fabrics, to help trigger memories. One of my favorite activities is boiling a pot of water with a cinnamon stick and vanilla. It smells just like apple pie. Upon smelling the sweet aroma, my client, Estelle, always exclaims, “I make the best apple pie! I won a prize for my recipe. I will have to bake one for you next time you stop by.” This starts a conversation about Estelle’s love of baking, especially for her children. Estelle laughs heartily as she tells the story of her son picking out fruit from the center of the pie. The experience leaves her feeling uplifted, a feeling that remains with her even after the memory has past.
Seeing your loved one struggle with dementia is difficult, but with the right support, they can still enjoy life. Remember that your loved one’s enjoyment is based on your enjoyment of them too. A pleasant visit will almost always leave the person in a good mood long after you’ve left.
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