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Alzheimer’s and Personal History

Getting the Personal History Stories from those with Alzheimer’s

An article by Tom Gilbert - © August, 2012

Losing memories is sad. As we age it is not uncommon for people to become forgetful. You can probably chalk this up to the normal aging process. However, for many people the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s becomes a serious and even frightening occurrence. Those affected struggle with various issues, chief among them the inability to remember certain people, places and things.

The preservation of a life story can be an important part of anyone’s legacy. We all have a story to tell, regardless of accomplishments or fame. The story we tell is our personal experiences in life and how those experiences have helped to shape our beliefs and values. Every life is sacred and every journey worth remembering and recounting.

Doing life review and preserving your personal history can be beneficial on many levels, including your health. But many mistakenly believe that those with dementia or early stage Alzheimer’s are incapable of contributing to the preservation of their life story. For those afflicted the process of life reminiscing does become more challenging. There is, however, help to preserve personal history for those suffering from early Alzheimer’s and dementia. In fact, the very process and activity may have beneficial results. But it takes a special sensitivity and training to gather those memories.

Special Interviewing Techniques

Alzheimer’s is a brain disease that is progressive, but it is not a normal part of aging. Those afflicted do lose some of their ability to communicate verbally. However, many of them can still sing and music and poetry have been shown to be effective tools for reminiscing.  A skilled interviewer will now how to utilize these tools to help capture a life story.

Disorientation, use of inappropriate language, and recent memory loss can and do occur in many patients with Alzheimer’s. Personality changes, rapid mood swings and struggling to complete familiar actions also take place.

How can one approach gathering the vital information that goes into a personal history or life story from someone suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s? There is a way to capture their story before Alzheimer’s has taken its toll. Katherine Segura has been working with the senior population for over 20 years, including extensively with persons and families affected by dementia and Alzheimer’s. She continues to instruct personal historians in effective ways to converse with clients diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. She instructs on a number of effective interview techniques.

Some of the keys are to speak slowly while facing directly towards the person with Alzheimer’s. If the person says things that are contradictory or historically incorrect don’t correct them. Instead, gently redirect or go with the subject’s suggestion. If they become upset try distracting them by changing to discussing something pleasant. One should never attempt to physically interfere.

“Tell me about” is a great phrase to use in interviews. Stress key words. Show the questions in writing and use pictures and photographs. Allow the subject to also relate to the time period they believe they are in. It’s counter-productive to correct them to the present date if their reality is a different year. Better to let them talk about their memories and preserve their valuable personal history.

Additional helpful resources can be gathered from the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, Alzheimer’s Association and the National Institute on Aging.


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