James had late-stage Alzheimer’s, and Mary had been his wife 48 years, the last seven of which James had resided in a facility. He wandered incessantly, mumbling to himself and avoiding eye contact. Mary visited every day but doubted James was even aware of her presence.
Mary was hesitant to participate in our weekly picture communication workshop, thinking James wasn’t capable or be able to sit still long enough. Surprisingly He remained engaged throughout the entire class. James often turned his face away but remained seated listening as Mary paged through the magazine, talking about the pictures she pointed out.
If he became attracted to a picture, he would touch it, and Mary would cut it and glue it in the collage they were making. Mary discovered most of James’s chosen images related to his past and their life together, and she would talk to him about the memories they brought up.
One day, Mary tearfully showed the class their collage. James had been a high school basketball coach, owned a red car, a tractor lawnmower, and built a small airplane. The images and words associated with James’ prior life; however, it was the words, “I’m ok, I’m alive” that jumped off the page. Mary explained he kept touching these words even though she was hesitant to cut them out. She revealed although the pictures seemed to relate to their shared experiences up until now, she was afraid to believe he was still in there.
The “I’m ok, I’m alive” clipping convinced her she had not lost him completely.
I trained this technique to both family and professional caregivers for over a decade. The results always amazed me.
The life of every person is a collage composed of pieces of their personal experiences. However, when dementia chips away at the memory and begins to curtail one’s ability to communicate, it’s hard to know what pieces of their life continue to exist, especially when they become like James, non-verbal.
Using pictures from magazines is a very effective way to find out, and you don’t have to make collages, although doing this is a highly effective reminiscence therapy. Just hold up a magazine and slowly page through one page at a time. Use your finger as a pointer of the images you’re talking about. Then, comment on what you are seeing trying to get your loved one to participate.
Eliminate the word, remember. Just tell the story.
“What a beautiful beach! Honey, we used to go to the beach every vacation with the kids. We both loved swimming in the ocean. There was the time when ….. If your loved one joins in, be sure to listen and encourage reminiscence. Keep your finger on the image, which helps them keep focused on your story. Use magazines that pertain to their prior interests; travel, cars, Women’s themes, sports, children, or nature.
This activity increases interaction and focus, and the reminiscing helps both of you emotionally connect. Try it.