Triggering the Dementia Patient’s Memory
In my book Goodnight, Sweet: A Caregiver’s Long Goodbye, I recalled sitting in the hospital with Grandma as she recovered from surgery. Once I’d said “hi” and asked how she felt, her dementia suggested that our conversation was pretty much over; I remember it seemed like the hours of that day were stretched out before me like the long, skinny shadow from The Thin Man movies. I was in agony, searching my thoughts for anything that could engage her foggy mind. It’s something I imagine most every dementia caregiver has experienced.
We chatted about her bed, the sheets, the light over the bed, her hospital gown and how the sun would brighten the room before the clouds would come and obscure the light. Each minute that passed seemed to be dragging a weighty ball and chain behind it. I squirmed in my chair, shifting my weight back and forth, until all at once it came to me.
“Grandma,” I began. “Have you ever been to the Smoky Mountains?”
Her face lit up as she answered with surprising clarity, “Oh, yes!”
That was all it took; from there we talked about her trip to the Smokies as well as several other vacations from her past. I found we were having something that felt like “ordinary conversation,” and it was glorious from start to finish. But she had Alzheimer’s Disease—so how did this happen?
It is not unusual for patients with Alzheimer’s to struggle with their short-term memory (things that happened recently) while things from many years ago emerge with amazing accuracy. I certainly observed this with my Grandma, and while she talked about her past travels, I learned an important lesson: I needed to meet her where she was and allow her the dignity of telling me what she could remember rather than unwittingly put pressure on her to recall what dementia had taken away.
Stimulating the memories of people with dementia has been the subject of much research, and it includes elaborate scientific methods such as ultrasounds and electrostimulation, but for caregivers it would be a breath of fresh air to have a pleasant “conversation” with their loved one that could be achieved without a team of white coat-clad scientists on hand. And on that front, there’s good news: when research is paired with experience, the
exasperated caregiver finds there are a few options for consideration.
Prompting your loved one with a question about a long-past event, even one you definitely know the answer to as I did with Grandma, can make a great start. This allows your loved one to communicate something they remember very well without the embarrassment of lost details in their short-term memory. With that pressure off, they have the pleasant experience of sharing a story with you which makes them feel better overall.
Another area that shows promise in memory retrieval for the dementia patient is music. Researchers believe the area of the brain that appreciates and remembers music may be less affected by diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Maybe there is a special song you’ve enjoyed together; if there is, download it to your phone and play it for them when you visit. You may get to see their face light up as pleasant memories are triggered.
Photos & Videos
You might be amazed by what you can learn about your family history by looking at old photo albums with your loved one who has dementia. You can even have old VCR tapes converted to a digital format and watch them together on your phone or tablet. The photos and videos may prompt your loved one’s memories which can lead to a quasi-normal conversation; this is wonderful for everyone.
It is most important that we stimulate memory in a positive way so that the one we’re caring for feels loved and comfortable. We want to facilitate their communication to the best of their current abilities. Finding the common ground means we have to go to them since dementia leaves them struggling to get to us.