One of the loveliest aspects of becoming a parent has been taking our daughter on various trips to meet her extended family. On one such trip we were given a gift, not of a teddy or a baby outfit, but a book with memories of her granddad.
Regular readers of D4Dementia will know that the joy of having our daughter last year was tinged with the sadness that my dad will never meet her. He would have loved being a granddad, and I can only picture in my mind the huge smile and tears of joy and emotion that he would have had as he cuddled her for the first time.
The memory book we were given was something last discussed at my dad’s funeral. My cousin promised to look out some photos, and write down memories he knew of from my dad’s early life, and I was so touched to find that promise was still remembered over 4 years since we laid my dad to rest.
The book comprises old letters and photographs, alongside my cousin’s account of memories from my dad’s childhood and early adulthood. Some details I already knew, but it’s fascinating to read about the places my dad visited, and some of the things he did with his parents and siblings. Dad’s regular routines in his young life, which probably seemed very mundane back then, provide a captivating insight and conjure up pictures in my mind of dad on his motorbike, singing songs around the fire and visiting favourite pubs.
I’ve written before about the value we had from life story work while my dad was alive, specifically the memory box we made for him. The creation of that box was a wonderful process, displaying it made us very proud, and the discussions sparked by the contents gave joy and pleasure over and over again. It truly was the gift that just kept on giving, and still does to this day, positioned next to my work desk.
For me, that last sentence really gets to the heart of the ‘point’ of life story work. Its value when the person is alive is well documented, but it remains just as valuable, perhaps more so, when the person is no longer with us. Keeping a relative’s memory alive, and being able to remember them in happy times, having fun and living their life, gives a very comforting perspective on the loss you feel of your loved one.
The links between life story work and good dementia care are well established. Of particular note is the fact that life story work is hugely important no matter how well you know a person, hence its value for families and professional care staff alike.
If you know a person well, it can help to guide your mutual reminiscence and pride in your loved one’s life and achievements, as well as triggering conversations about favourite sports, music and films etc. If you are a professional who doesn’t know the person so well, life story work is like a window into their world, helping to guide and inform you as you provide care and support for them.
If the person has limited communication skills it enables you to gently prompt conversation. You may also find it beneficial when trying to soothe someone feeling anxious or upset, to lift their mood if they are feeling down, or to bring out the best in the person when they are having a good day and just need a few little prompts to spark off memories they can enjoy.
Life story work is as diverse as the society we live in, and we can all participate – no matter who you are, you have a life story. You might not think it’s very exciting, but everyone has something worth sharing and something they can feel proud of. Indeed, one of the best ways to get staff involved in life story work for the people they are supporting is to begin by showcasing their own life stories.
Purely co-incidentally, in my consultancy work with care providers I have various clients who are either embarking upon, or trying to strengthen, life story work within their services at the moment. Different approaches are being utilised, which is precisely what I am encouraging – as in all aspects of dementia care, one-size-fits-all doesn’t work.
Templates, guidance and resources are abundant on the internet for anyone looking to begin life story work, but in truth it’s not about the format or model you access to help guide yours or someone else’s life story work. The most important drivers for creating, maintaining and evolving a life story resource are enthusiasm, inspiration and commitment.
You have to see and believe in the value of life story work or it will simply become a nice ‘project’ that’s started and possibly ended (or abandoned). In reality, life story work is a continuum. The best examples of it are never completed, much like that book we were given about my dad. He is no longer with us to benefit from it himself, but current and future generations can enjoy it and continue to add to it – there are still many blank pages to fill.
Given that this year’s World Alzheimer’s Month – or World Dementia Month as I feel it should be called – is themed around ‘Remember Me’, there seems no more fitting call to action for us all with World Alzheimer’s Day approaching on 21 September than to reflect on the place life story work has in our own world and that of our loves ones. Documenting memories and turning them into vibrant resources that tell their own unique story has a magical quality about it that I can’t put into words – you really just have to try it.