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Reel Tributes Documentaries of a lifetime

Memories are made of this: Help an Alzheimer’s patient remember past

By Christina Mitchell
Courier Post Online
January 9, 2012
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The “apple turkeys” were a surprise.

Danielle Rago, program director at Care One Harmony Village at Moorestown, deals exclusively with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. During one regular “reminiscing session” with patients and their families, the daughter of one client in her mid- to late-80s recalled how her mother would dress up apples like turkeys for the holidays.

The mother promptly recreated one of the turkeys and has taught other patients how for three years since.

“So this lifelong memory the daughter brought in, she (the patient) was able to teach other residents,” Rago says. “And now it’s a tradition here.”

Recovered memories can be as revealing to families as to patients. Today’s mobile technology is prompting offspring to embark on projects documenting their parents’ lives before dementia takes its course.

“They (children) will say to me, ‘I can’t believe Mom remembers the cabin house in the Poconos,’ ’’ Rago relates. “It’s exciting how often people say to us, ‘I can’t believe what mom or dad remembers.’ ”

In an attempt to prompt those memories, the Alzheimer’s Association Delaware Valley Chapter is partnering with Philadelphia-based Reel Tributes to encourage patients and families to record life stories. Founder and CEO David Adelman was inspired by his participation in September’s Philadelphia Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

“We had a table set up there,” Adelman recalls. “And what we realized by talking to a lot of people was pretty much everyone said, ‘It’s too late. My parents are gone.’ Or, ‘My mom’s memory is gone.’

“I can almost script how these conversations are going to go. People will say they were in denial. Or they got crazy because it was such a stressful time. And then it was too late.

“The message we heard over and over was, ‘I wish I had done this before.’ ”

It’s a familiar refrain to Claire Day, vice president of constituent services for the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Reminiscing is the success of people with dementia,” Day believes.

Evoking memories can be as casual as asking a parent to tell a story, or as formal as a professionally produced video. But Day cautions the extent of the project depends on the patient. Memories can be stirred by old movies with a favorite Hollywood star. Music almost always jogs the memory. Day recalls two female patients who hadn’t spoken in months until they heard the song “You Are My Sunshine.” They were subsequently able to sing every lyric perfectly.

Day also recommends mixing nostalgia with routine.

“If you’re a caregiver at home, you have to make dinner every night. Maybe you have them (the patient) thumb through pictures while you’re cooking dinner.”

But a direct question that requires an answer can be off-putting.

“You don’t want to say, ‘Mom, do you recognize this or that?’ Or ‘Who is this person?’

“When you think about Alzheimer’s, it’s a disease that’s full of losses. As every year progresses, the loved one loses more and more memory.”

Yet certain traits are sustained by the long-term memory that lasts longer in Alzheimer’s patients than the short-term. Former musicians may still be able to play a simple tune. Long-ago painters can still move a brush across a canvas.

“A lot of preserving these abilities is about families being able to adapt, but also just going with the flow,” Day says. “Mom may not be a concert pianist, but she can still bang out a Christmas carol. Families have to look at that as a preserved skill instead of a loss.”

Pictures or videos, Day adds, “can ignite the spark of the familiar.”

“Show them a picture from two weeks ago and they draw a blank. But they can pick themselves out in a 20-year-old photo.”

Small devices such as digital tape recorders and cell phones can unobtrusively record memories, according to geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Scheinthal. But he cautions that not every patient is the same when it comes to tripping down memory lane.

“What works for one person is not necessarily going to work for the other,” says Scheinthal, associate director of geriatrics for the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging at UMDNJ’s School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford.

“It also depends on what the legacy is and who it’s for. Is it for the grandkids? Is it for the children? You want to be careful you don’t put the older adult on display.

“Some of them have lived through some very difficult times, world wars, the Depression. While we may find that interesting, (the patient) may not want to relive those memories at all, and you have to respect that.”

“It has to be casual,” says Rago.

Other recommendations:

  • Ask fewer current questions and more based on past history
  • If there’s a familiar story you’ve heard as a child, start telling it to trigger a patient’s memory. “We all know a story,” Day says.
  • Take out old pictures and allow the patient to remember faces and dates in his or her own time. Old Hollywood movies are particularly effective in identifying a particular era. “I’ve heard from both family members and patients some really remarkable stories centered around movies people saw, because (theaters) were one of the few places that were air-conditioned and kids used to hop from one movie to another,” explains Scheinthal.
  • Negotiate in advance. Make sure the patient is comfortable with a camera or tape recorder. Make them part of a soundtrack they can narrate rather than the object of a photograph. The latter can be off-putting to a patient whose appearance has been altered dramatically by Alzheimer’s.

“You should always ask, ‘Do you mind if I do this?’ ” Scheinthal warns. “You also need to know your loved one.

“On the other hand, having a legacy can be an awesome thing. It’s a way to be immortal.”