4 Tips to Help Write the Life Stories
of a Loved One with Memory Loss

Romy Terkel, September 2020

Gentlman looking at photos

If you’re hoping to save important memories before they are lost, it’s worth trying these 4 tips to help write the life stories of a loved one with memory loss.

Every time I present about my business, somebody comes up to me afterward. Somebody whose eyes are filled with tears. Somebody who tells me about a loved one whose story can no longer be written — a mother who has dementia, a father who has Alzheimer’s. Most recently, it was a lady named Ann. “I wish I had saved her stories,” she said, her voice tinged with regret. “I really thought we’d have more time…”

Sadly, this is such a common story.

The thing is, it’s still possible to write the stories… or at least pieces of them.

Here are 4 tips to help write the life stories of a loved one with memory loss:1. Try Asking About Memories from Childhood

When people we love experience memory loss, it’s natural to focus on what they can no longer do, but it’s important to remember that there are often things they still can do.  For people with Alzheimer’s disease (the most common cause of dementia), recent memories typically go first, but older memories can still be recalled, particularly in the disease’s early stages. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/caregivers/in-depth/alzheimers/art-20046331 There were many days when my mother-in-law couldn’t remember what she ate for breakfast and asked the same questions repeatedly. But on those same difficult days, when we asked about her beloved granny, her eyes lit up and she shared wonderful memories.

…try asking questions that don’t have wrong answers like, “What are you proud of?”

2. Try Asking Questions that Involve Opinions

Plain, factual questions like, “How old were you when you got married?” can be tough to answer. When you sense those kinds of questions are challenging, try asking questions that don’t have wrong answers like, “What are you proud of?” I find they take the pressure off and make people feel more relaxed and comfortable. You can also try asking for advice on something you’re grappling with — whether to discipline your teenager or take that unexpected job offer. People enjoy feeling like they still have some influence on others, especially people who are starting to lose their ability to do things independently. It gives them a sense of dignity to know they can still give something of value to another person.

3. Try Using Multi-Sensory Triggers

To help write the life stories of a loved one with memory loss, another useful tip is using multi-sensory triggers. This is called reminiscence therapy. https://health.usnews.com/conditions/brain-disease/dementia/articles/reminiscence-therapy The idea is to tap people’s senses to help trigger memories. Looking through old photo albums can be helpful. Smelling foods associated with home cooking or baking can also stimulate memories. I’ve heard so many wonderful stories about food while working with clients — from eating ice cream on a stick in Poland to sharing a Napoleon pastry every Wednesday in Holland!

Music is particularly effective at evoking memories…”

Music is particularly effective at evoking memories because it is stored in parts of our brains that aren’t affected by dementia. Recently, I was working with a 95-year-old client who is experiencing some memory loss. He told me that he fell in love with the song, I Can’t Get Started, when his family moved to Canada in 1936. He said he still knew every word and proceeded to sing the whole song, with a big smile on his face.

I’ve noticed the power of music on other occasions. Not long ago, we celebrated my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday. Sadly, she has moved through the Alzheimer’s stages quickly. But, when a family friend came by to sing her favourite songs, she started singing along. It was the first time we had seen her engage in a meaningful way in a long time and she looked happy. I think sometimes we forget that feelings remain in people with dementia despite all of the other losses they experience. By using sensory triggers like music, we are more likely to help our loved ones feel joy… and bring back memories.

4. Try Finding Valuables You Already Have

A fourth tip to help write the life stories of a loved with memory loss is to be creative with the valuables you already have. This process can help fill in the pieces. What stories did your loved one used to tell? What lessons has he or she shared with you? Do you have any handwritten letters, cards or recipes? How about photos, newspaper clippings or old recorded interviews?

Not too long ago, I was working with a 99-year-old man. His kids interviewed his mother in the early 1980s. He allowed me to borrow the cassette and transcribe the interview. We decided to sprinkle pieces of the interview throughout his book. In this way, his mother’s voice was saved and preserved in his story. In addition, the taped interview jogged my client’s memory and provided other missing pieces.

It’s always worth trying these 4 tips to help write the life stories of a loved one with memory loss. You may not be able to get answers to all of the questions you ask, but what if you could still spark a meaningful conversation and unlock important memories? It all begins with making time and being brave enough to ask the questions. And looking around at what you already have. What you find may surprise you.