Using Photos to Break the Ice with Alzheimer’s

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If you are visiting a family member with Alzheimer’s or dementia for the first time in a while, you may feel unsure or nervous about the meeting. What will you say? Will your loved one be able to hold a conversation? Will they even remember you? These types of feelings are completely normal. When Alzheimer’s or dementia begins to steal away the memories and personality of a loved one, you may no longer feel like you know how to be around them. One great way to break the ice on your visit is to bring along a photo album.

According to Alzheimer’s & Dementia Weekly, “Using photos and photo albums as reminiscence therapy is effective at enhancing self-esteem, reducing social isolation and depression, and providing comfort to people with dementia.” Using photos as an accessory to your conversation can be a great option if you haven’t seen your family member in a while, if you are bringing young children who are nervous, or if you have had trouble communicating with your family member in the past.

Preparing Your Photos

Before you set out to visit Grandma at her memory care facility, take a little time to prepare the photos you intend to bring. Alzheimer’s & Dementia Weekly suggests creating a photo book of the loved one’s life. You can buy a standard photo book at your local craft store or big box retailer. Here are a few tips for putting together your photo book:

  • Include a picture of your loved one on the cover
  • Put the pictures in chronological order, starting from your loved one’s early days and moving into the present
  • Focus on happy memories, like weddings, graduations, vacations, and pictures of your loved one engaging in his or her favorite hobbies
  • Clearly label each picture. Include names, location, and date if you know it. Make the labels big and clear.

Starting the Conversation

When you arrive at your loved one’s memory care facility, find a nice quiet spot where your group can sit comfortably and review the pictures. Maybe sit next to a window or out on the patio on a warm summer day. Open the book and start exploring together. Here are some great tips on how to get the conversation flowing:

  • Ask your loved one open-ended questions about each picture. For example, “There’s you and the family visiting the Grand Canyon. What do you remember about that trip?” You can even keep it as simple as, “Tell me about this picture.” You might be surprised at the new things you will learn.
  • Alzheimer’s & Dementia Weekly advises you to “connect, don’t correct.” Your loved one may mis-remember the year a wedding took place, who gave the best man’s toast, and other details. There’s no need to make corrections. This isn’t about setting the record straight; it’s about connecting with your family member and sharing positive emotions.
  • Tell your own stories. This isn’t a one-way conversation. If a certain picture sparks a memory or emotion in you, feel free to share it, especially if you’ve brought younger family members along who might not have heard the story yet.
  • Let your loved one set the pace. You don’t need to get through the entire book in one sitting or have a long conversation about every image. Instead, your loved one may respond to certain pictures more than others. That’s okay. This is about spending time together, not following a strict schedule.

When you bring a photo album to your loved one, you may be surprised by just how much he or she remembers. That’s because visual cues can help jog dormant memories. Also, those with Alzheimer’s and dementia tend to hold onto older memories longer, so older images may spark many more memories and more conversation than you expect.

Consider leaving the photo album with your loved one when you leave, so he or she can look at it when he or she pleases. If you don’t get to all the pictures in one sitting, that’s a great reason to come visit again soon!

Want even more great ideas on how to connect to a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia? If you live in Poway or San Diego County, we invite you to attend our free monthly support group for caregivers and family members of those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.So far my kidney is feeling much better.


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