When my first job out of college took me to another city, the only thing I really missed was all the people from back home who “knew me from before.” Over the decades, I’ve come to love my new city of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and when my mom was 84, I brought her here to be near family. But I didn’t truly appreciate how difficult it was for her to leave behind all those who knew her from before—from before she developed dementia.
Mom eventually landed in a memory care program and then a nursing home, and I struggled with wanting others to know the person she once was. First, I created a scrapbook of her life so staff would have insight and appreciation for this wonderful woman who had given me unconditional love. The book was a conversation starter, but it was way too heavy for her to hold and share.
From that beginning, I developed an idea for a book that I found to be much more useful in my mom’s case, and I think it would help others as well. I call it It’s Still Me! and it’s more than a scrapbook and less than a full personal history. Perhaps developed by a local personal historian, these books could contain everything that others caring for or just meeting that dementia patient should know about who he or she was “from before.”
The book I made for my mom included:
- Mom’s family history, including her parents heritage from Hungary and their life in the Untied States.
- Her work as a super secretary, meeting my dad, and their first years of marriage in San Francisco during World War II.
- Her kids (my brother Andy and me) and our kids.
- Photos from throughout her life, with her kids and grandkids.
- The joys of her life (travel with family) and the tragedies (losing my dad and a grandson.)
- Her likes (chocolate ice cream and swing music) and dislikes (onions and fish).
- Suggestions for caregivers: Do talk to her about her family. Do make her laugh. Do not take her to play Bingo.
One of the things I wanted people to know was what a great mind Mom once had. Our family game was Scrabble—in the early 1950s, my parents had one of the first sets and played at least once a week with friends for 40 years. I loved the story of Mom refusing to put down a seven-letter word (for 50 bonus points) because it required her putting an S in front of the word “hit.” She just couldn’t do that then, although later in life, she admitted she should have.
Mom was also a voracious reader and she bought and mastered books of Sunday New York Times puzzles. I wanted people to know these things about her.
When my mom was in the memory care program, the director told me she “had insight.” I thought that was a good thing, but he meant something very different. He meant that she knew how much she had lost mentally. It was pretty clear that she could no longer do crossword puzzles or play Scrabble. And it hurt her.
Even during these difficult years, there were moments of lucidity to celebrate—times to see and remember the wonderful person inside her. That’s why on the final page of that book I created for her, the message was: “Remember: It’s Still Me!”
I would like to see books like It’s Still Me! as a staple in memory and assisted living programs. They are the most personal of personal histories and among the most important because they honor the person and remind family, friends, and caregivers about the person still inside.
~~ APH: Life, Story, People ~~
About today’s contributor: Susan T. Hessel calls her business Lessons From Life, because she believes we can all learn from the stories we remember and tell. She cherishes memories of her parents and enjoys helping others find and save stories from their own families. Sue is At-Large Director for APH, the Association of Personal Historians.
Photos courtesy Susan T. Hessel