When Family Caregivers Become Family Historians

October 14, 2017

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Senior woman's hand touching an old photo. Close up.

When your mom or dad is coping with dementia, it can be difficult watching them lose their grip on old memories. After all, losing our memories means losing a part of ourselves. In the same way, memory plays a key role in our ability to hold onto those we love. When we keep memories of someone, that person is with us so long as those memories are kept alive.

To preserve their loved one’s memories, many children of those with dementia take on the role not just of family caregiver, but also of family historian. These caregivers take it upon themselves to act as memory caretakers for their parents, making a dedicated effort to record, research, and preserve their loved ones’ personal histories.

As a family caregiver, becoming the historian of your loved one’s life is often a therapeutic experience. In documenting your mom or dad’s memories and personal history, you’ll be creating a record of your loved one for yourself, for your family, and for future generations. Even more important, you’ll be creating a dementia care tool that could prove invaluable as your loved one’s condition progresses.

Why Record Your Loved One’s Memories?

There are many reasons to begin recording and researching your loved one’s memories and personal history. As your loved one’s child, the record you create will help you preserve your own memory of your mom or dad. You may find yourself developing deeper understanding of how your loved one became the person you know and love. This record will also give your children, your grandchildren, and future generations a window into their family history.

But of everyone in your family, no one stands to benefit as much as your mom or dad themselves. Dementia care professionals have found that “reminiscence therapy” can help those with dementia access old memories more easily. This type of dementia care therapy uses prompts from a person’s past to trigger memories from their younger years.

By recording and researching your loved one’s past, you aren’t just recording your loved one’s story. You’re also building a memory bank to use in dementia care. As your loved one’s dementia progresses, these prompts could prove vital to accessing your loved one’s old memories.

Getting Started as a Caregiver-Historian

Dementia care professionals who practice reminiscence therapy recommend speaking with your loved one about their early life in an effort to prompt old memories. Avoid asking broad questions like “Tell me about your childhood.” Instead, try asking specific questions, like “What kind of food did you eat every Christmas dinner?” These questions often spark vivid recollections, leading your loved one to uncover cherished memories.

As your loved one shares these memories, you will want to record or document them. Dementia care specialists recommend making audio or video recordings, but only if your loved one is comfortable doing so. In cases where you are unable to record your loved one’s answers, it is best to write detailed notes following your conversation.

While most memories you record will be stories, it’s important to remember that sensations are often our most powerful memories. When we touch, smell, see, taste, or hear something familiar, it brings memories associated with that sensation flooding back. Dementia care experts say these are some of the most effective prompts for triggering memories.

Once you’ve collected a substantial number of memory prompts, you can incorporate these prompts into dementia care. Some of the ways you can trigger old memories include:

  • Playing recordings of your parent recalling their memories in their own words.
  • Enjoying favorite movies and music from their childhood.
  • Making old family recipes they enjoyed in their younger years.
  • Reading old letters from family and friends.
  • Going over old photos or spending time with family heirlooms.
  • Visiting locations from where they grew up.

Further Research

Many family caregivers turn the recording of their loved one’s personal history into a kind of passion project. You may also wish to speak with your loved one’s friends and family members, particularly those who were there for your loved one’s childhood.

You might also want to expand your research to the internet, newspaper archives, and historical records. This way, you can collect images, audio files, videos, and artifacts from the period when your mom or dad was growing up. Often, you can incorporate these items into reminiscence therapy. Some dementia care facilities have even taken to decorating rooms with antique furniture, period advertisements, and other historical items.

As dementia progresses, you might find it becomes harder and harder to spend time on collecting and recording memories. For caregivers who find this work emotionally therapeutic, this can be especially troubling. When this happens, dementia care services can provide you with the respite and support you need to continue recording and preserving your loved one’s personal history.

Written by Larry Meigs
Visiting Angels is America’s choice in home care. Since 1998, Visiting Angels locations across the country have been helping elderly and disabled individuals by providing care and support in the comfort of home. In addition to senior home care and adult care, Visiting Angels provides dementia care and Alzheimer’s care for individuals suffering from memory disorders. There are now more than five hundred Visiting Angels locations nationwide.

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