The Ten Absolutes

Absolute Five: Never Say “Remember?” Instead Reminisce!

It has been my practice for years to carry a bridal magazine and a classic car magazine with me when visiting with persons with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia. These magazines are an excellent tool to use for reminiscence. I sat down with a group of five ladies at ‘tea-time’ in one of the Alzheimer’s homes I directed. I was flipping through the magazine and saw a bridal gown that I thought was just beautiful. I said to Miss Frances, “If I ever get married, I want to buy a dress just like this.” Miss Frances raised her eyebrows, put her hands on her hips and said, “Honey, if you haven’t found a man at your age, you had probably better give up! And if you think you can get your big bottom in that dress, you have another thing coming.” Though a bit shocked, I was also very amused, and just had to laugh! I responded, “Miss Frances, that is why I love you so much! You really tell it like it is.” As I looked around the table I realized that everyone had been involved in this conversation. One lady was laughing, another was holding her hand over her mouth, another shaking her head and making a “tsk, tsk, tsk” sound. The last of the ladies actually got up and said to Miss Frances, “You owe this nice lady an apology for talking so ugly about her!”

Absolute #5 tells us, Never Say “Remember,” Instead Reminisce. So often I am asked, “How on earth do you reminisce without just automatically starting each sentence by saying ‘do you remember when we…’”. Understand that it is very normal to ask a person with Alzheimer’s if they “remember,” as it is a word that is very hard to remove from our vocabulary. It will take practice, and at times it still just comes right out of one’s mouth.

A training tool for this Absolute is to ponder if you would ask a person who had just gone blind to read, or if you would ask a foot amputee to dance. Unlike other disabling conditions, for some reason with brain degeneration we tend to focus on the disability and not the ability. The best way to interact with a person with Alzheimer’s is not to see what they remember as if they are taking a test. Rather it is to create a comfortable way for them to share information.

You can learn to allow your loved one to be “the one who knows.” Magazines are an excellent tool, or using a photo album. Instead of saying “who is this?” just state something like “this looks like Joe.” If they don’t know and they don’t care - then they don’t know and they don’t care. However, if they do know, they will likely say something like, “That isn’t Joe! That’s Bob, and he’s standing in front of Uncle Jim’s car. That was the day we went to the county fair.” It gives them the opportunity to tell what they know without being questioned or feeling ‘put on the spot.’

Another easy method is to just start discussing a fond memory from the past, but don’t start with “I remember…” instead, just remember. For example, “One time when we were at Grandma Mary’s farm in Proctor, we went out and picked mulberries. They were the best-tasting fruit I have ever eaten!” They can enter in, tell you that it was Grandpa Johnny’s farm, and they were not mulberries, they were blackberries. Or your loved one can continue with their version of the story. The point is not the story but the conversational exchange that makes you both interact in a way that is fun and familiar. The disease will disappear, if only for a time.