Some years ago, when I was a filmmaker, I did a documentary on family caregivers. The show dealt with five caregivers, two of whom were struggling to look after a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. I had a close-up look at the challenges it inflicts on patient and caregiver alike. Since I became a personal historian five years ago, I felt that there was therapeutic value in recording the life stories of those with Alzheimer’s.
Soon after starting my personal history work, I had the opportunity to do a series of video interviews for a charming and accomplished woman who was at an early stage of Alzheimer’s. Both she and her family realized that if I didn’t get the stories recorded they would soon be lost forever. She thoroughly enjoyed my visits and seemed stimulated by the recall of familiar stories from her past. Today that same woman has deteriorated considerably but her family finds some comfort in knowing that her life lives on in these recordings we made.
The other day I read an article in MayoClinic.com Alzheimer’s: Mementos help preserve memories which seems to bear out my anecdotal observations about the value of life stories and Alzheimer’s. The article notes:
“Caregivers become the memory for their loved one with Alzheimer’s disease,” says Glenn Smith, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. “By gathering memories, you can bring important events and experiences from your loved one’s past into the present. You’re the link to his or her life history….By creating a life story, you affirm for your loved one all the positive things he or she has done in life and can still do. Even after your relative’s memories start to fade, creating a life story shows that you value and respect his or her legacy. It also reminds you who your loved one was before Alzheimer’s disease.”
Tom Kitwood in his groundbreaking 1997 book Dementia Reconsidered believes that a Life History Book for a person with dementia, complete with photographs, should become best practice. He says, “In dementia a sense of identity based on having a life story to tell may eventually fade. When it does biographical knowledge about a person becomes essential if that identity is still to be held in place.”
If you know a family member at an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease, you might give serious consideration to recording their life story. If you’re a professional personal historian unsure if you should work with clients who have dementia, give it serious consideration. You could be providing a wonderful gift.
Alzheimer’s Association (USA)
Alzheimer Society (Canada)
Photo by luca:sehnsucht