Lost Memories – Can They be Restored in Those with Dementia?

Most of us know someone with dementia. If you don’t now, it’s likely you will shortly, since a new person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease every 67 seconds.

Family caregivers of people with dementia are on the front lines, watching memories fade from their loved ones. We know how quickly names, places, dates and events are forgotten.

The hardest of all may be when your loved one can’t remember your name or who you are to them.

We can take solace in our own memories and the certainty of their love for us expressed through the years of our lives together and the small things they did to show us their love.

What if we could help them get those memories back?

Latest Research in Dementia

A recent study out of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) may have discovered a breakthrough in our current knowledge about storing and retrieving our memories.

Scientists have held the belief for many years that our memories are stored in our neural synapses, the connections between brain cells. These UCLA researchers may have found that memories are stored elsewhere. That could be good news, since synapses are destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.

These researchers feel that these brain connections can be restored and, if these synapses can be restored, memory will be revived.

They feel that memories are not lost, just inaccessible. If seniors with dementia can regain the function of long term memory synapses, they feel that memories can be restored.

This is the case for early stages of Alzheimer’s, when neurons are still alive. Once the neurons die, as is the case of advanced Alzheimer’s, memories are not expected to be recoverable.

Caregivers Can Capture Memories

Because this research is in its infancy and may not bear fruit when we need it, family caregivers will have to find other ways to bridge the gaps in our senior loved one’s memories in other ways.

Forgetting familiar faces, names of things, where they left an object or even how to care for their own needs including eating, grooming or toileting, is not uncommon as dementia progresses.

Here are a few ideas for you to prepare for memory loss and hopefully ease the sense of loss you all feel when memories fade.

  1. Seize the day! Talk with your senior loved one about their life, their favorite places, family vacations, members of the family tree, jobs they had, and other experiences. It doesn’t matter how big or small the detail might be. Record these conversations in a variety of ways including journals, photo albums with citations, video that can be played on tablets or audio recordings of their voice relating the stories.
  2. Take photos with people in their life. Enter them into a special photo album with little stories about what makes each person special that you can read together later. This album could be digital too either for computer, tablet or photo frames. Don’t forget a video would be wonderful too!
  3. Go to their favorite places. Go with family or friends to places with special meaning, whether that is the neighborhood park or the Statue of Liberty. Take pictures, get souvenirs and record stories to share at a point later in time when reminiscing is required.
  4. Make a memory box. The box doesn’t have to take the shape of a box but can be anything to house this special collection. It could be a box, a basket, an old piece of luggage or a dresser drawer. Inside this memory repository should be things that your senior loved one treasured. Pick things that are tactile and might elicit a memory when felt and manipulated. Some things to include may be a special piece of clothing, a tool, a ball, sea shells, pins, jewelry, or items from nature. The objects should have a story of significance that you can relate when you go through the box later together.
  5. Collect their favorite music. Perhaps they have albums or other music media that they have loved throughout their life. Talk with them about what genres they most enjoy, what memories are attached to the music, if they like to dance or sing along, and what other music was their favorite that they may not already own. Did they go to concerts or play an instrument? Once you have learned about their tastes, begin creating playlists that can be played on an MP3 player or tablet later when music will soothe and comfort them. Learning their favorites will mean a lot later.
  6. Use art to bring out memories. If your senior loved one is already having trouble communicating, you can use arts and crafts to bring forth memories.
  7. Life activities. Learning about the things your senior loved one enjoyed doing throughout their life including hobbies or jobs will start this project. Gather some things that pertain to each type of activity. One example is gardening. Collect garden gloves, a hand shovel, seed packet, small container and dirt. When you both need something to relieve boredom, get this box out and work on it together. Play in the dirt, talk about their garden, discuss their favorite plants, and plant your own seeds. Watering and watching it grow will lend itself to even more reminiscing moments. Other ideas for activity boxes include tool boxes with little projects, sorting activities with nuts, bolts, buttons or beads, or small fabrics or clothes to fold. Whatever would appeal to your senior keeping in mind their functioning level and safety depending on their cognition.
  8. Create a sensory garden. If you have enough outside space or if you use some inside space on a smaller scale, bring together things that have familiar scents or feels that could stimulate memories. Perhaps it is a lavender plant, a moss covered rock, water fountain, burnt wood or lemon sage that your senior can explore. Talk about what they feel or smell and how it makes them feel. Can they relate any tales about the smell of lemon and drinking lemonade? Use the senses to open a memory dialogue.

You can help your senior bring forth some fading memories using some of these techniques. You can share stories and will actually be making new memories when you use some of these memory reminders you have made.

Sharing their memories, collecting them when they are still able to be captured and using them yourself once they are gone will be invaluable to you and worth the effort it takes to create these projects.