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Capturing the memories

We just had a milestone birthday party at our house (and just for the record it wasn’t mine!)

As the girls and I created a guest list and prepared to entertain family and friends, the stories began. We shared stories that involved that were not only their Dad, but also the people we were again going to touch base with. At the party, of course there were many “remember when’s” and some of them might be better when they are forgotten!

My daughters had also contacted friends and family that were too far away to help us celebrate and requested their thoughts and memories in writing. They presented their Dad with a wonderful collection of printed thoughts and memories from people in his life. Of course we learned things that we had never known before! What wonderful preserved memories!

You don’t need a birthday to bring back memories. Often time with friends, family reunions and get-togethers with people you haven’t seen for awhile bring out the stories. It seems once you’ve started, memories flow for hours.

“You remember when we unscrewed all the light bulbs from the Christmas tree at the principal’s house?  Man, we were lucky to not get caught!” “Mom, remember that long car drive we took? You said we had to find every state’s car license plates. Ugh! I won’t ever do that to my kids!” “Remember the morning Uncle Tim was staying with us in the basement bedroom and he woke up to a foot of water on the floor!”

One just seems to bring up another! Gatherings of friends and family become such a treasured time to remind each other of all the great memories that have happened.

It’s so important to somehow preserve these memories. Often the little things somehow pass us by. You probably know your dad’s career in life, but do you know his favorite color? What would Mom choose if she could do anything she wanted for a day? What was their very favorite vacation spot? What sports were their favorites in school?

Capturing and preserving memories is valuable for all members of the family, all ages, but when a family member is affected by Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias it can be even more important. It also can be even more challenging to get it recorded; however, it can happen in a number of ways. It might entail turning on a favorite 1940s big band hit, spreading photos out on the coffee table, intentionally creating a list of questions to ask, and sitting down in the living room together to record the thoughts your loved one shares. Or, reminiscing might occur more spontaneously during a family gathering — make sure you have a notepad or video camera handy!

To accommodate your family member’s cognitive ability level and make sharing memories in any situation a positive, meaningful experience, keep the following considerations in mind:

• Do involve other family members; Don’t put the person with Alzheimer’s on the spot.

Someone who has experienced some cognitive decline may feel embarrassed when he or she gets confused and can’t remember an important detail, especially in front of a group of people. If the whole family is telling stories and reminiscing together, don’t single out the person with dementia by asking a detail-oriented question like ”Dad, do you remember what you said to Mom on our camping trip when she backed the car into a tree?” Instead, ask a broader, open-ended question like “Dad, do you have a favorite memory about the camping trips we went on?” to encourage sharing without quizzing.

• Do look at photographs together; Don’t expect the person to recognize everything.

Rather than pointing to a picture and asking “Who’s this?” you can offer your own commentary: “That looks like Grandma when she was younger” or “This picture must have been taken at your wedding. Look at all those funny hats.” If you come across certain photos that spark vivid memories for your family member with dementia, set them aside and keep them handy to revisit often.

• Do share your own thoughts as they relate to the memories your loved one shares; Don’t monopolize the conversation.

If you have set up a session to record your loved one’s memories, it’s OK to make it two-sided and tell some of your own stories. But it’s also important to be a patient listener. Even if your family member struggles to find the right words at first or talks very slowly, keep listening. Your patience may be rewarded with a wonderful anecdote or memory.

• Do ask specific, personal questions; Don’t interrogate.

If there’s something your family member with dementia can’t remember or doesn’t want to share, accept that and move on. Keep your questions conversational and feel free to probe a little bit for extra details, but don’t demand answers. Remember, you want to facilitate a positive experience for the person, not an uncomfortable one.

• Do ask good questions and record the discussion; Don’t expect a five-hour session.

If you sense the person with dementia has become tired, frustrated, or eager to change the subject, call it a day. On the other hand, be prepared to continue listening for as long as the person wants to keep sharing. Try not to end the session until a natural stopping point is reached.

• Do focus on general memories and emotions; Don’t focus on exact facts and details.

The goal is to give your family member with dementia the opportunity to share cherished memories with the people he or she loves. You don’t need to record a precise journalistic account of the person’s life.

Activities to capture and preserve memories with your family member living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias should focus on what that person can and wants to remember. You can help to minimize frustration by paying attention to your loved one’s limitations and adapting opportunities for reminiscing accordingly.

For more information and tips on capturing memories, on having conversations with people affected by Alzheimer’s, and many more resources, go to You can also always contact me at 824-0077. Happy Memories!

DEB CRANNY is the executive director at Home Instead Senior Care in Brainerd.