Memory boxes: helping older people with dementia keep links to their past. A scheme by Kirklees Council

Our past, and memories of it, defines us. A scheme in West Yorkshire is helping people with dementia recall their past and retain their identity. Graham Hopkins reports

Our memories work faster than a computer. They are truly remarkable. But there’s a flaw – we tend to forget. You can recite the reigns of every king and queen of England but where did you put that pen you had in your hand two minutes ago?

It’s normal to forget. The trivial, the mundane, all the stuff we don’t need to remember is quickly consigned to our brain’s deleted items folder. It’s those special things – occasions, and moments – that we tend to leave in the memory inbox.

But memory’s greatest enemy is age. And if memory problems intensify it is often an early indicator of dementia. There are more than 100 forms of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the best known. Dementia mainly affects older people. Beyond the age of 65, the risk of developing it doubles every five years. One in five people over 80 experience dementia.

For such people, reality orientation and memory aides and stimulation can help calm anxiety, trigger warm emotions and improve quality of life.

To this end, older people with dementia in the care of Kirklees Council (covering Huddersfield and its localities in West Yorkshire) took part, along with their families, in a project to create a stimulating memory and sensory experience. They made memory boxes.

“Research shows that sensory stimulation is more effective in changing the behaviour, mood and cognition of older adults with dementia than a physical activity such as a game,” says Kirklees head of adult services, Mark Greaves. “The memory boxes offered therapeutic activity to our residents in care homes and day care. Staff worked with residents and their families to create the memory boxes. All the items in the boxes stimulated fond memories of days gone by.”

More than 60 people from two care homes and two day care centres took part. The boxes were filled with cards, photographs, crafts, war-time memorabilia, models, books, mementos and toys such as spinning tops and jack in the boxes.

Gladys Greaves, a day care service user, says: “It brought back lots of happy memories of things I used to do – especially during the war. I was a baker and made wedding cakes. I give the staff instructions on how to make a war time wedding cake”.

The staff benefited also. “Memory boxes have brought us all together – they are a great talking point,” says care home manager Angela Teal. “Everything is on show to see – the old record player is used by all.”

The project helped staff revaluate people’s memory loss and look at how daily living can be improved through memory trigger points. “It was very stimulating,” adds divisional manager, residential and day care, Jane Sharkey, “It has given us some useful insights. We have tapped into people’s past – everyone likes to reminisce.”

Indeed, the project has helped staff and service users get to know each other better. “The most important part of treatment for dementia is good quality support and care, and for their carers,” says Councillor Margaret Bates, cabinet member for adult services. “By knowing about a person’s past we can ensure that we communicate better and provide sensitive care. People bring history with them and we need to be tuned into this and keep their experiences alive.”

Naturally, dementia is not the exclusive property of old age. As Mark Greaves adds, “Many of our younger service users have impaired memory loss. Illnesses such as depression can also cause memory problems. We are exploring the possibility of introducing memory boxes into our day care services for people with mental health concerns.”

Lessons learned
● The memory boxes offered additional therapeutic activity for service users.
● Although aimed at people with dementia, many residents and day care users had better memories than had been originally been thought.
● The project has provided some useful tips on how to improve the quality of people’s lives through their individual experiences.
● Kirklees is now working towards setting up an environment designated for people with dementia; research into design concepts shows that memory  aids, memory boxes, corridors with street names and so on can reduce aggression and confusion.
● Also under way is the development of sensory dementia care gardens and working in partnership with local schools.

Contact the author
Graham Hopkins

This article appeared in the 5 April issue under the headline “Thanks for the memory”



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