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"God gave us memories so that we could have roses in December"

The title is a lovely quote from JM Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan.

I had a lovely afternoon sharing memories yesterday; I managed to track down someone who was my line manager about thirty years ago, to ask her permission to use her as a vignette in my next book. We spent a few hours having an email conversation that brought lots of memories to the surface again. It was lovely; although i was surprised that the first thing she remembered was my husbands car number plate. Odd the way things get stored.

Just looking at old photos that might be appropriate when talking about memories was good for me - holidays when the children were young and prepared to swim in Lakeland tarns still.

It moved me on to thinking about memories and how important they are. Autobiographical memory supports well-being and effective functioning of the self in various ways. Difficulty retrieving memories interferes with effective functioning of the self and is related to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.[1] Autobiographical memories afford people a sense of continuity throughout the life of each person; the idea that one is the same person now as in the past and will be in the future. [2]

How well do we support people to retrieve memories and regain some sense of the person they are? I know we often have 'About me' books in hospital settings or photographs in care homes, but do we really use them, I wonder? Do we just use the booklets to help us understand that Mrs Smith prefers coffee to tea perhaps? Do we see the person and remind them of who they are by helping with personal reminiscence? Do we ever ask Mr. Peterson about his life as a train driver or Ms Jenkins about her days working on in India? Or do we sometimes just see an old person living with dementia and talk a bit louder?

Maybe you offer reminiscence therapy? The the effects of such interventions are inconsistent, often small in size and can differ considerably across settings; I wonder whether that is because they are not often personalised. Showing Mrs Mitchell photos of rich young women in flapper dresses in the 1920s may not trigger any memories at all for her - particularly if she wasn't born until 1926 and then lived in a tenement slum in the East End of London. If we don't personalise the reminiscence, then it is unlikely to reveal the memories.

I am going back to a time when I was a student on an elderly care unit. In a side room was a woman that was a bit scary to someone who was more used to bathing babies. Ivy spent most of her days strapped into a tilted chair. She screamed out continually – usually, “Where’s my porridge”. I felt she was terribly sad, but was told she was incapable of communicating other than by screaming the same words over and over everyday.

The first time I tiptoed into Emily’s room to check on her, I saw her following me with staring eyes. She tightened her grip on the arms of her chair and started shouting. I was a bit lost as to how to respond and, a bit frightened.

Despite being very inexperienced in the care of the elderly, I knew the impact distraction could have as a means of calming distressed little ones. Maybe it would work with big people too? I simply asked Ivy whether she’d ever worked. I wasn’t expecting a response but was just filling a void in communication. She dropped her piercing stare and said, “Laundry work. Up at Blakes old place”. I was so surprised and nearly jumped out of my skin.

I grew to love working with Ivy, she had a wicked sense of humour and if taken back to where her memories were hiding, she would engage and talk about being young and poor in London in the 1920’s. She still screamed, “Where’s my porridge” very regularly, but if she was enticed with the right questions, she would calm and respond. It was fascinating listening to her experiences. She was clearly happier remembering who she was, and it was much more fun to care for the person telling us about being in service, being a bus conductor and how to get sheets properly white.

I believe that it pays to notice the person behind the memory loss and try to help them find little pieces of themselves by asking them about ‘then’ rather than ‘now’.

[1] Front. Psychol., 22 December 2017 | [2] Fivush, R. (2011). The development of autobiographical memory. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 62, 559–582. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.121208.131702

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