Saving the Libraries Lost to Alzheimer’s Disease
Storytelling is a part of our make-up as human beings. From the time our children are old enough to have any understanding at all, we teach them family stories, stories of our country, stories of our faith.
These stories give both children and adults a sense of belonging, a sense of place in the broader scheme of things.
One of the great tragedies of Alzheimer’s disease is the loss of personal history as memory fades. I've heard one person compare it to a burning library, and I think that’s an apt description.
My grandmother, Margaret Enloe Woodward, died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1995 at the age of 94. At her funeral, the pastor told the story of how around 1915, Grandmama rode across the mountains with her little sister sitting behind her on the horse, as the family moved to Sevierville, TN from the family farm they had just sold near Maggie Valley, NC.
I knew the farm later became the Mountain Farm Museum at the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, but I had no idea Grandmama and one of her sisters had ridden horseback across the mountains in the move.
I suppose my father told the pastor this story. How could I not have heard it before?
I realized at that moment how many changes Grandmama had seen in her lifetime -- two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the advent of electricity and automobiles, just to name a few. How I wish I had recorded her stories while I had the chance!
To help other families in this effort, our foundation, Cognitive Dynamics, sponsors an initiative called “Bringing Art to Life.”
We partner with the University of Alabama Honors College to offer a for credit course which brings art therapy to people with early to moderate Alzheimer’s living in West Central Alabama.
During art therapy, wonderful stories of the past are brought to the surface. The students enrolled the course record these stories, and meet with the participants with Alzheimer’s and their families to gain an even greater understanding of the person’s history.
In essence, they are pulling the books from the burning library.
Mary, one of the participants with Alzheimer’s disease, was withdrawn and uncommunicative, looking to her daughters to speak for her.
Reluctantly, we invited Mary’s family to enroll her as a participant in the course, all the time wondering if Mary’s condition was too far advanced to receive much benefit.
We were so wrong.
Two female students were assigned to record Mary’s life story. There were some awkward moments when they visited her home for the first time. Then, one of her daughters had the bright idea to bring out Mary’s wedding dress.
And Mary came to life.
To everyone’s amazement, Mary couldn’t stop talking about her husband, how much she loved him, their wedding day, the problems fitting the dress, and a hundred other details of that day more than 60 years before.
No, Mary could not have told the group what she had for breakfast a couple of hours before, but she could tell her story, and she felt valued. By the time the students left, Mary called them her “new granddaughters.”
Mary’s condition markedly improved through participating in the course, both from the students’ visits and through the art therapy. For Mary, nothing medical science could offer was as effective as being able to tell her story.
What objects are significant to your loved one with Alzheimer’s disease? Bring them out and ask about them. You may be surprised at the results.
Ellen Woodward Potts, MBA has over 20 years’ experience in healthcare management and teaches “Leadership Development through Service,” a survey course of non-profit organizations, at the University of Alabama. She currently serves as Managing Partner for Dementia Dynamics, LLC, and as Board President for Caring Congregations, an inter-faith organization that operates 3 dementia daycare centers, a GPS locator program, and other dementia support services. Through A Pocket Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver, she strives to honor the care her family members gave her maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother, both of whom had Alzheimer’s disease.