Let Me Be Your Memory: A New Alzheimer’s Initiative

“Do you know what disturbs me most about my condition?” she said.

“No. What is it?” he responded.

“The fact that I may not be able to remember you,” she sighed.

His response, grounded in the long-suffering, triumphant love of a caregiver, echoed beyond the room in which he spoke.

“My dear, let me be your memory.”

Perhaps this request, this hope, arose from his belief system. It may be a truth universally known by some, wished for by others. “We are eternally remembered,” he said, as if it were his credo.

It has become mine.

As a neurologist treating people with dementia and supporting their caregivers, and as a caregiver myself (though my father passed away in 2007, once one has been a caregiver, one never ceases to be), I draw unending inspiration from the stories, insights and experiences heard almost daily from those living inside this phenomenon called Alzheimer’s disease. Hardship breeds heroism, and inspiration is there for the sharing, if we just listen to the stories.

I was taken by this quote from John Green’s best-selling book, The Fault In Our Stars: “…the pleasure of remembering had been taken from me, because there was no longer anyone to remember with.”

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By age 85, nearly half of us, statistics show, will have Alzheimer’s disease. With every passing year, precious life memories are lost. I am alarmed at the level of personal disconnection bred by our modern culture, especially intergenerational. As a young boy, I was enthralled by stories shared by older family members and friends. I hung on their every word. These days, instead, incoming text messages drown out the seasoned voices of our elders.

Inspired by the above conversation and convinced of story sharing’s prime importance to build relationships among generations and to preserve our cultures, our foundation, Cognitive Dynamics has partnered with The Voice Library to develop Let Me Be Your Memory, a unique audio-based archiving language arts curriculum for middle and high school students. The six-week curriculum builds language arts competencies while raising awareness of those living with memory disorders and their caregivers.

This compassionate, memoir-based program stimulates students to learn, investigate and connect with family and community through a Common-Core-adaptable curriculum created by Lavanda Wagenheim, an experienced educator with a heart for sharing the human condition. Participants develop intergenerational relationships by sharing stories, and preserving those stories with The Voice Library’s acclaimed digital audio memoir-preservation technology. Students learn to appreciate memoir through reading, writing, interviewing, and recording, and creative assignments support their learning experience.

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Piloted in Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s Magnet Middle School in 2012, Let Me Be Your Memory has had an enduring impact on participating students and their families. While visiting her former middle school, Erin, a bright-eyed, creative high school student shared with former teachers her wish that more personal storytelling, like she experienced in middle school, could be integrated into her current English and History classes. She recalled Let Me Be Your Memory fondly: “I thought I knew my grandmother really well before I interviewed her for the project. After all, I spend half of my free time with her when I am not in school. We have a very close relationship, and I feel like I can tell her anything. But I found out that I really didn’t know her in one aspect – I didn’t realize that she had had many struggles as a teenager. It turns out that she and I have even that much more in common, and now I understand myself better because she told me stories of her own growing up in the ‘60’s. Let Me Be Your Memory helped me to grow even closer to my grandmother and gave more meaning to my life. I feel like I am going to survive and make it through high school now because there is someone out there just like me. That someone is my Grandma.”

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Let Me Be Your Memory fosters building intergenerational relationships as it validates elders and educates learners at all levels, even while raising awareness for the plight of those who are losing their memories to Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Furthermore, the program uses strategies which may have memory-boosting effects for elders, including engaged reminiscence in relationship with others, learning new audio-preservation technologies for the recording of oral memoirs, improving listening skills through story sharing, and bolstering mood through having one’s life stories heard, honored and preserved. As the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology has shown, connecting our deep inner experiences with those of others creates favorable conditions for preserving and enhancing brain function, from youth to old age.

Many have observed that we discover our essence when we care for others. Perhaps we can help students of all ages learn a bit about themselves as we draw inspiration from an elderly caregiver by enabling and equipping them to say, “Let me be your memory.”

“The world is shaped by two things – stories told and the memories they leave behind” — Vera Nazarian

Image Credit: TheVinylCompany on etsy

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