Capturing the Alzheimer’s Person’s History

by Nancy Wurtzel on May 20, 2015

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My sisters and I made a big mistake when my father began showing the first signs of Alzheimer’s: We didn’t take the time to capture Dad’s recollections about his childhood.

When he died in 1999, after living with Alzheimer’s for the better part of a decade, Dad’s six siblings were also dead.  This meant there was no one of his generation, except my mom, left to ask.

However, when we peppered mom with questions about dad’s early years, she couldn’t tell us much.  Dad was never one to easily share his feelings.  And, like many people of his generation, Dad kept moving forward and didn’t dwell in the past. For her part, Mom was busy caring for dad as his memory slipped away.

Both of My Parents Had Alzheimer’s Disease

About six years after Dad died from Alzheimer’s, my mother began to exhibit memory loss.  In time, we learned it was also Alzheimer’s disease.

Determined not to make the same mistake with our mom, we made a plan to capture her recollections of growing up in Iowa and her life as a young adult during World War II.  This was before cell phones, so we initially video taped our interviews.  However, mom found the bulky camera  intimidating and it caused her to become nervous and reticent.

Instead of the camcorder, my daughter, Katie, who was then a young teen, substituted a tape recorder and this proved to be a much better options.

Capture Memories Before Alzheimer’s Advances

Katie, now 22-years-old and a recent college graduate, loves history and family history even more.  She is equally happy searching genealogy websites for hours or sifting through boxes of dusty papers and old family photos.  I’d describe her as a genealogy fanatic, but mainly in a good way.

But you don’t have to be a genealogy expert to capture your loved one’s memories.   There are numerous websites that will help you through the process, some charge a fee and some don’t.  You can record on your cellphone or opt for the old fashion way: A list of questions, a block of time and pen and paper.

Tips for Talking With the Alzheimer’s Person About His or Her Childhood Memories

The most important part is a genuine interest in learning more about your loved one.  From my own experience, I’d offer the following tips:

  • Don’t rush. Patience is important, so set aside a block of time.
  • However, keep in mind your loved one may share memories when you are least expecting it.
  • Don’t correct the person as this only serves to stop the conversation.
  • Recounting your own childhood recollections, might prompt your loved one.
  • In a natural manner, ask questions.
  • Follow where the conversation takes you and keep asking questions.

Make These Conversations a Family Project

Alzheimer's disease and the challenges of caregiving elderly parents.When you are the throes of caregiving, there never seems to be enough time.  Carving out some of this very limited time to record someone’s childhood memories might not seem that important.

However, if you delay too long, that window of opportunity will close forever.

Personally, missing out on those conversations with my dad is a big regret.  My advice is to make these conversations a family project as a way to honor the person living with Alzheimer’s disease.  You may find it a revealing and healing process.


*Photos Purchased From Dreamstime


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