For elderly people struggling with memory loss, one of the toughest things can be forgetting the details of their own lives. What must it be like when you struggle to recall something you were sure you’d never forget — the name of an old friend, perhaps, or a favorite city where you once lived, or the meal you always cooked at the holidays?
“This is people’s biggest fear, to lose their memory and to lose that sense of self,” says Dr. Gwynn Morris, associate professor of psychology at Meredith College.
I reached out to Dr. Morris and to another expert on gerontology — Ann Norwich, director of the adult gerontology nurse practitioner program at York College of Pennsylvania — because my mother-in-law is finding it harder to remember details about her own, quite remarkable life. At 93, she has retained her memories longer than many people do. But as recall has become more difficult, I’ve been hunting for ways to help her hold onto the stories and details she once knew about herself.
I decided to design some customized memory aids for her this holiday season, but I wanted to make sure they were effective.
Morris and Norwich offered advice on how to jog an elderly person’s memories and help them retain the knowledge they still have. Here are two craft projects built from this research, both perfect gifts that are easy and inexpensive to make:
Crossword puzzles aren’t quite the cure-all for aging brains that they’re sometimes touted as, Morris says. But keeping the mind active can help slow some aspects of cognitive decline. And practicing recall of important information regularly can help you retain it.
So if an elderly person once liked crosswords, as my mother-in-law did, it could be useful and fun to create custom puzzles using information they want to remember. Focus on valuable information, such as the names of grandchildren and some details about them, Norwich says. Elderly family members may be embarrassed to be struggling over remembering such information, so these puzzles can be a gentle way to jog those memories.
“You want to play to things that are personally relevant to them,” Norwich says, and “make sure that these are positive experiences.”
Take time to choose the right topics. My mother-in-law was an avid traveler, so I’ve designed puzzles about the foreign cities she most enjoyed living in and visiting. I’ve noticed that when I remind her of these experiences, she seems pleased and energized by the memories.
Once you have your topic (or topics) chosen, creating your puzzles is easy. There are many free puzzle-making sites online. Many are designed for teachers, but they’re open to the public. One that’s easy to use is crosswordlabs.com . You’re given a blank space to enter your list of words and their clues. The site then builds a printable crossword puzzle with that information.
To print your puzzles, choose some heavy paper from a craft store in appealing colors and textures, and use a home printer. Or, to make the gift more substantial, give the collection of puzzles a title, and design a cover page with the title and recipient’s name. Have the title page and puzzle pages printed on heavy paper and bound with a spiral binding at a copy shop.
Music can be especially valuable in triggering memories in older people, Norwich says, so she suggests making personalized playlists for elderly relatives.
How does this work? As we age, “semantic memory,” which includes historical facts and other non-personal information, such as the lyrics to an old song, tends to be better preserved than personal memories. But that semantic memory is useful in triggering the “episodic memory” that includes our personal stories.
So old music can trigger different personal, episodic memories in each person who listens to it.
To select songs with the most impact, consider the research into something called the “reminiscence bump.” Studies show that most people have particularly strong recall about events that happened in early adulthood, specifically throughout their 20s, says Morris. So pick a selection of songs that were popular when your loved one was between 20 and 30.
These songs are most likely to spark the clearest personal memories. And for many people, these are especially energizing memories, because they were formed at a time when the person was young and active.
You can save the playlist to an iPod, which you set up in a dock with a timer or alarm function. That way, the playlist can begin at a specific time each day, and the person won’t have to remember to turn it on. You can choose a “shuffle” function so the songs play in a different order each day.
Another option: Burn the playlist to a CD, then place it in a CD player with an alarm clock function that will play the music at a particular time of day.
Once it’s ready, spend some time listening to the playlist together, and ask your relative what they remember about listening to these songs in the past and about the years when the songs were popular. You, and they, may be surprised what good memories surface.