Do You Know Me? It’s Still Me…

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


This entry was posted in Elderly/Aging, Family Stories, Personal Historians, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Do You Know Me? It’s Still Me…

  1. Linda Austin says:

    Great idea for nursing home! I like the sample page giving tips of what staff can talk about and do with the patient. Be nice if the nursing home would have ring-binders of basic info pages like this for each resident, set out in the activities area as a resource for aides – easy access is important. My mom had Alzheimers and most of the activity aides read her memoir and could talk to her about the old days.

  2. cj Madigan says:

    Sue, what a beautiful thing to do. And what a great reminder that behind the wrinkled faces and sense of confusion, there are vital people who lived rich lives.

  3. Fran Morley says:

    Once for a newspaper series I wrote, I did a story on a man who was living in an assisted living facility. He had a fascinating story about growing up in New Orleans & meeting famous jazz musicians, his travels with the merchant marine & an important career. When the story came out, he posted it on his door, and I heard later that staff treated him differently after that. They interacted with him as the interesting person he was ‘from before’ (as Sue says) and not as just another old man in their care.

  4. Eileen Kent says:

    The personal histories I have done for nursing home residents have had the exact same effect on staff. I have observed them as they watched the film at the “premiers”. They mentioned they would think about the person much differently now that they knew more about them. Your book is a wonderful idea!

  5. Beth LaMie says:

    What a great reminder that we can still help others get to know our elderly loved ones. I love the title “It’s Still Me!” and will consider doing one soon.

    How sad for your mom that she “had insight” about her condition as she got older. You were blessed to have her near you at the end.

  6. Mona Flax says:

    This is such a wonderful concept, and I love the “It’s Still Me” title. I recently completed a book for a friend who is dealing with Alzheimer’s. She and her family wanted to preserve her long term memories while there was still time. We barely finished her beautiful book before conversation became almost impossible for her. I intentionally included many photographs of the special people in her life, and an extensive list of all her “favorites.” I hope the book will do for her what yours did for your mother.

    But I love the idea of doing a shorter version for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients! I’ll definitely be thinking about this concept. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  7. Sue, this is a splendid idea for children to do for their parents who are entering memory care or assisted living facilities. I’m going to share this with one of my client-friends, a family caregiver turned advocate, who is the co-founder of the Culture Change Network of Georgia, “a group of dedicated supporters and stakeholders working as partners to promote and foster culture change to improve the quality of life for older Georgians in all settings where aging services are delivered.”

  8. Annie Payne says:

    I have also suggested to the Alzheimer’s Assoc of SA a ‘pocket biography’ name plate outside each resident’s room.They trialed the idea and have introduced the concept here in South Australia. Just my tiny gift to such a hard working organisation!

  9. Tara says:

    I love this idea, and commend you for the work you did on this important project.

  10. Perhaps some of our most creative endeavors are rooted in a desire to cocoon those we love from the personal invisibility they experience in institutional living. Every facility should include your idea in their family orientation package.

  11. Carrol Seago says:

    Assisted living as it exists today emerged in the 1990s as an eldercare alternative on the continuum of care for people, for whom independent living is not appropriate but who do not need the 24-hour medical care provided by a nursing home and are too young to live in a retirement home. Assisted living is a philosophy of care and services promoting independence and dignity.’;;,

    Check out our personal blog page as well

  12. Pingback: 20 Reasons Why You Should Write Your Family History: #1 You’ll Feel Wiser | APH Blog

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