Memory boxes trigger happy recollections for men and women lost in the fog of dementia and help caregivers get to know their frail charges.
The gold and turquoise Chinese opera shoes are a shock of colour against the beige walls of the long-term-care facility Kui Min Lei now calls home. They’re reminders of another time, another life.
A stroke five years ago diminished her forever. Glaucoma has blinded her. Dementia has robbed her of her past.
The embroidered slippers sit perched on white platforms in a glass “memory box” outside the door to her sparse room. They are reminders to the 86-year-old grandmother, and the staff at Oakville’s West Oak Village Long Term Care Centre, in Ontario, Canada, that Lei once had a rich, full life.
For those adrift in the confusing and often frightening world of dementia, memory boxes can serve as temporary anchors. Also known as “way-finding boxes,” the cabinets mounted in the wall outside each resident’s room are a familiar tool to help them find find their way home, as well as figure out where they belong in a world that can feel turned almost upside down.
“A lot of other residents put pictures of their grandkids (in their memory boxes), but I wanted something that showed who she is as a person,” says Lei’s son Henry of his mother’s silk shoes. “She used to listen to Chinese opera day in and day out and taught herself all the lyrics. When I was young I found it very annoying. I used to ask her, ‘Could you turn it down a little bit?’ ” he says, smiling.
As he grew older, Lei came to appreciate his mother’s passion for performing the ancient spectacles of song, dance and drama on the stages of Chinese community centres. A photograph of her final performance in Toronto’s Chinatown area a dozen years ago — in elaborate makeup, colourful costume and a headdress dripping with beads — also graces her memory box.
Henry Lei has been surprised to discover opera’s enduring power: “Most of the time she just gives one- or two-word answers, but when you put on the opera she sings along and becomes another person. She seems to find comfort in the music.”
There are memory boxes in almost every long-term-care facility built in the last decade, largely because of mounting evidence that the right tools can help ease the fog of dementia with reminders of the person their loved one used to be.
They always have glass doors and range from the size of small curio-type cupboards to china cabinets.
“We’re always looking for strategies that provide comfort in the moment,” says Lori Schindel Martin, an associate professor specializing in dementia care at the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing at Ryerson University. It’s all part of the constant search to find things that trigger memory. We need a huge grab bag of tricks because what works one day will not necessarily work the next to make the connection.”
We’re always looking for strategies that provide comfort in the moment.
Schindel Martin recalls a patient in her mid-80s whose family filled a hatbox with photos, dress patterns and other equipment she had used during her career as a seamstress, including an oil-cloth tape measure with the patina of repeated use. Just feeling it in her hands and draping it around her neck would ease the woman’s distress.
Tool and tackle boxes filled with family mementos seems to work with some men, she says.
Dementia experts are reportedly finding some success creating posters that chronicle the elderly person’s life that can be mounted at their bedside to spark conversation, says Schindel Martin. “I don’t think people always have a true appreciation how the person who does a good job in dementia care has to be a detective, jester, actor, scientist and professional caregiver. There is artistry in what they do.”
Schindel Martin acknowledges that no one really knows if devices like memory boxes really work, other than as a directional devise.
But at the least, says Kathy Lashley, director of client services at Toronto’s Kensington Health Centre, they brighten the place up and let staff see another side of the person they care for, some of whom were accomplished artists, professionals and community leaders.
She’s particularly touched by one, the biggest memory box in the facility, that is packed with family photos, mementos from grandkids and a ceramic couple sharing a bright yellow park bench. It tells the love story of Rosario and Fortunata Petrolo, who moved into Kensington more than eight years ago because of Fortunata’s failing health. She died more than a year ago. Rosario is now in palliative care.
Social worker Kathleen Connelly says she’s often inspired as she walks past the 472 memory boxes that Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care incorporated into its 10-year-old Apotex home for the aged, many belonging to Holocaust survivors.
“They lost everything. They don’t have pictures, they don’t have mementos. Their memory boxes are more a celebration of what they achieved after they came here. Sometimes you can see a resident’s life like a story. It allows family members to show what a full life their loved one had.”
Connelly says she was especially touched to see the love and care with which Marcelle Bouganim and her brother Alain Hadida created a photographic tribute to their father when he was transferred to Baycrest two months ago. He was not expected to live long.
“We did it because he’s a remarkable man and he always taught us to have a lot of hope,” says Hadida. Their 85-year-old father, Jacques, has since rallied.
“I always stop and look at my dad’s memory box. Even strangers stop to look at it. The great thing about a memory box is that it represents some of the greatest times in that person’s life.”