Sharing Personal History To Make Meaningful Moments

Photo Albums May Help Those with Dementia Connect with Caregivers

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Joan is living with Alzheimer’s disease. Today, Bill, her husband of 55 years and her primary caregiver, is taking Joan to a doctor’s appointment. Walking out the front door, Bill picks up a small photo album from the hallway table and tucks it into his coat pocket. The album, titled “Joan’s Favorite Places,” contains vacation photos and will come in handy if Joan becomes restless while waiting at the doctor’s office. Joan can’t always describe where or when the photos were taken or who the people are, but her eyes still light up, and she smiles at each new page. The album reminds Bill―especially when he’s tired from care giving―of the many wonderful experiences he and Joan have shared.

Photo albums containing the personal history of someone living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia are easy-to-use and enjoyable tools at any stage of the disease. Sam Fazio, Ph.D., director of Constituent Services at the Alzheimer’s Association, says photo albums can help create meaningful interactions between people with dementia and those who care for them.

“Early in the disease, photo albums are a good way to get people talking,” Dr. Fazio says. “At the middle stage, you may notice the person is using fewer words as you review the album together. As the disease progresses, people may not respond verbally. Their expressions and body language can tell you how they’re feeling and give you clues about what to say.”

Dr. Fazio emphasizes that the purpose of using a photo album to create conversation is to make a personal connection; the album shouldn’t be used to quiz the person or to make him or her feel uncomfortable for not knowing something. “Follow the person’s lead and be ready for surprises,” he says. “Someone may say, ‘I never lived in that house!’ or ‘That’s not my brother.’ Don’t correct the person. Instead, comment on something else in the photo, like the flowers in front of the home. Go with where the person is at the moment.”
To use this practice, remember to keep the album handy by placing it on a coffee table or bedside where the person living with dementia, caregivers, family, friends and visitors will see it. Some people may want to look at their album daily, while once or twice a week may be enough for others.

Use open-ended questions and statements about the photos, such as: “Tell me about your brother” or “What do you like about this house?” People in the early stage and middle stage of Alzheimer’s may be talkative, so listen and respond to the person’s statements and reactions.

In the later stage, if the person isn’t verbal, you can share your own memories about the photos. Watch the person’s expression to gauge his or her emotional reaction and then comment; “Look at that smile! That must have been a special day” or “I notice you seem sad as you look at that photo of your dog.” Such observations can lead to meaningful interaction.

At any stage of the disease, monitor the person’s attention level and fatigue. Don’t press on if he or she loses interest or becomes agitated. The most important part of the story you share with someone facing Alzheimer’s is your care and attention in the moment.