My parents both had Alzheimer’s disease requiring specialized care. I am not a specialist in Alzheimer’s care nor am I trained to give medical advice. That said, as a child of two parents with Alzheimer’s, I know something about the struggles for families living with the disease. Because I have met many other Alzheimer’s families, I wanted to share what I have learned about how heirlooms contribute to happy visits with loved ones who have Alzheimer’s.
While my parents’ care facilities offered a quiet room, a reminiscence room and a Snoezelen room to help stimulate the five senses, my parents responded best to personal visits from family and friends. My parents were more responsive and engaged if I brought an object from our family home for them to talk about and touch. If anyone looked in my pocketbook when I went to visit my parents, they would have thought I was crazy with all the collectibles I carried around. The most comforting activities for my parents was discussing stuff that they recognized as their own.
I regularly brought a memory album filled with small ephemera (paper) mementos and photos. I scanned old photos and printed them out in booklet form from my computer. Digitization allowed me to reproduce original photos and leave a copy of the memory albums with my parents without the fear of losing original family photographs. The album helped my mom recall the names of her eight siblings, children, grandchildren, friends, neighbors, etc. Dad liked to talk about the summer cottage he built or his cars. Each page had a photo and a caption with names, ages, locations, approximate dates and descriptions. Photos of family homes, vacation spots, schools attended, church weddings and childhood pets were featured. The visuals sparked questions and conversation from Mom and Dad.
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In addition to the memory album, my mom, who loved to cook for our big Italian family, lit up when I brought part of her kitchen canister set for our visit. The salt and pepper shakers would get her talking about favorite recipes and before you knew it, she would offer a tried and true baking tip. My mom’s memory could be sparked by such diverse objects — shown to her one at a time so as not to overwhelm her — such as her wedding photo, a Hummel figurine from her collection from the 1950s or an afghan that she crocheted in the 1970s.
Of course, my mom’s disease was different from my dad’s. Mom was less combative, more engaged and more talkative than Dad. My dad was very quiet until he was upset by some outside stimuli. Then he was in the moment. After he calmed down and started to enjoy our visit, he would repeat sentences and phrases over and over again. A highly intelligent man and a professional athlete, listening to him repeat himself was very difficult for me.
After trying to redirect him, I found that my dad’s verbal loop could be interrupted if I introduced a related object to him. If we started our visit talking about baseball, my dad would say the same sentence about the sport over and over again. Yet, if I were to hand him a baseball from our attic — one dating from his days as a big league pitcher — things quickly changed. He could grip the baseball and show me how to throw a curve. Gripping the baseball, Dad could explain proper finger placement or recall the day he struck out a minor leaguer named Mickey Mantle. Dad’s post-war era baseballs sparked a positive conversation and stopped, albeit temporarily, the repetitive chatter. This heirloom helped my dad reminisce calmly. It helped me find comfort in the fact that he could recall memories with the aid of an heirloom.
At my appraisal events, I often say that antiques spark all types of emotions. Some objects collected over a lifetime can stir memories even when you think there are none. Vintage objects from my parents’ home significantly helped my parents in their memory care. They helped me too. It goes to show heirlooms are much more than just basement clutter or china cabinet dust collectors. Vintage objects are more than just something to save, they can be memory savers.
Lori Verderame is an antiques appraiser, nationally syndicated columnist and author and award-winning TV personality with a doctorate in the field. She presents antique appraisal events, keynote speeches and lectures to worldwide audiences. Visit www.DrLoriV.com. Follow her on Facebook.com/DoctorLori or call 888-431-1010.