So often, we speak of people with dementia only in terms of what they have trouble with—the difficulty remembering shared memories, the wandering off, the tendency to get confused or easily frustrated. It’s understandable that the personality changes that can come with conditions like Alzheimer’s can be challenging for loved ones and caregivers. But focusing on what people with dementia can do is often a relief for everyone. One great dementia care strategy is actually one of the simplest: storytelling is shown to be not only soothing for dementia patients, but can sometimes help participants express their emotions and access memories.
Showing people with dementia a photo of a stranger, such as a stock photo or something from the newspaper, and inviting them to share their reactions and create a narrative for the image doesn’t require any training, and can open up channels of communication. This is something you can do at your house, or that your loved one’s assisted living community might offer as a group activity, especially those with memory care facilities. While there are professionals trained in storytelling techniques, that isn’t necessary to get many of the benefits.
The act of making up a story based on an image is often less stressful for seniors with memory deterioration, because it focuses on the positive, encouraging them to make associations and exist in the moment, rather than reaching for memories that aren’t easily accessible. It gives them a pressure-free way to share and communicate, which are vital aspects of socialization for seniors that can prevent withdrawal and depression.
It can also offer a way to express deeply personal feelings in a safe way. By ascribing emotions and sentiments to the people in photos or songs, seniors can share parts of themselves without the same threshold of vulnerability that they might experience in a more traditional conversational or therapeutic setting. Instead of pressuring seniors to remember crucial events and relationships, they can instead be invited to imagine what they might be.
Anne Basting, who developed a storytelling therapeutic technique called TimeSlips, said the interactions “changed how [seniors] communities saw them. They were no longer invisible, but were now ‘storytellers.'” Instead of defining seniors by the changes they had gone through, they became defined by what they were still capable of. That has profound results not only for individuals, but for the retirement communities they are members of. Imagine what could happen if, instead of living in isolation, the residents of senior care facilities felt empowered to share with one another, to create, collaborate, and remember freely. That’s a vision we stand by.
Written by: Meghan O’Dea