Priming the Pump of Memory

There are ways to help prime the pump of memory using techniques that we have pioneered to help people find new ways to be successful. One of the most effective techniques we use to prime the pump of memory is also one of the most simple: put something meaningful in a person’s hands.

Dorothy was a small, wiry woman we met while we were working in a locked dementia unit. Dorothy was the community scourge; she was constantly going into other people’s rooms and taking things that did not belong to her. She was very bossy and argumentative. She would say hurtful things to people, both residents and staff. Her family was embarrassed by her behavior, often apologizing and telling us that this behavior was not at all like their mother; their mother had been the soul of politeness and was well liked in her neighborhood and church. They could not understand Dorothy’s aggressive attitude and her constant pilfering.  

Dorothy’s family told us that she had loved flowers and was known as the “flower lady” of their small town. Based on this knowledge of her personal interests, we decided to bring in real flowers and some vases for Dorothy to do flower arranging. We also brought a pitcher with water so that she could fill the vases with water for the flowers. When Dorothy saw the flowers, she rushed up to them and snatched them up in her arms, holding them against her chest with a look of challenge in her eyes. We told Dorothy that we brought the flowers for her to arrange for the dining room tables.

 Instead of using the safety scissors that we brought for Dorothy, she began to break the stems in her hands. Crack, crack, crack, the ends of the flower stems flew all over the dining room as Dorothy worked feverishly, arranging the roses, lilies and daisies in various vases. As time went on, Dorothy began to work more slowly, with more care. She would turn the vases to see if the flower arrangements were balanced. She carefully poured the water into the vases; if some spilled, she wiped up the spilled water. A sense of calm and purpose came over Dorothy as she worked with the flowers. When she finished the task, Dorothy had a table filled with beautifully arranged flowers, each arrangement different, and each lovely. We asked Dorothy if she would like to put the flowers on the dining room tables. At first, she hesitated, but then she told us, “That lady who sits there (pointing at a table) likes roses. I will give her this one with all of the roses.”

Dorothy became the flower lady again, this time the flower lady of the dementia unit. She still had problems with pilfering pretty things from other people’s rooms, but her attitude began to change. She may not have remembered that she was the person responsible for the beautiful flower arrangements in the dining room, but she loved looking at the flowers every day. We think that somewhere, deep inside, Dorothy did know that she was once again making a meaningful contribution to her community by providing their dining room with her special flower arrangements.

Through the years, as we have worked in retirement communities, adult day centers and memory clinics, we have discovered some simple but powerful tools for engaging people who are living with Alzheimer’s. One of the first ideas that we broach when we are consulting with families or training staff is this one very simple thing: put something meaningful in a person’s hands. This meaningful object can be something that the person loved, or it could be something from nature, or it could be a small sculpture or a beautiful photograph.

We all have a bond with nature, even those of us who live in cities. There is a resonance when we hold something made of wood; the wood takes on the warmth of our hands. Even something as common as a smooth stone can take on special meaning when placed in the hands of a person living with Alzheimer’s. Leaves, flowers, a cup of snow can bring forth a torrent of memories for elders who are now living in locked dementia units, or who rarely venture outside. 

We build a bridge to the person living with Alzheimer’s by the simple act of placing a meaningful object in their hands. For people living with Alzheimer’s, it can be very difficult to begin a conversation or spark memories from thin air. Giving people things to hold that are from nature, or from their own life experience, is a powerful way to help connect elders to the larger world again.

Charlie’s mother had been a talented violinist. As she passed through the final stage of Alzheimer’s, her family could not find any way to connect with her. She rarely opened her eyes to look at them, and never had any reaction to seeing them. She offered no smiles and no look of recognition. Charlie was near tears when he contacted us and asked for our help. The family knew, of course, that their mother was near death, but they wanted to be able to feel that they were with her in these last days.

Knowing his mother’s history, we encouraged Charlie to place his mother’s violin in her hands, even as she lay with her eyes closed. We also asked him to play some CD’s of his mother’s favorite music. Charlie told us that when he placed his mother’s violin in her hands, her eyes flew open and she began to stroke the beloved instrument. For the first time in months, Charlie’s mother looked at him and smiled. The last few days of Charlie’s mother’s life were spent listening to her favorite music, her violin in her arms, and her family with her to the end.

*[Authors’ note: Please make sure that the objects you use are safe: too large to be swallowed, nothing sharp edged or pointed, and nothing toxic!]