Most of us think we have more time than we actually do. Dementia may seem to move slowly, but its stealth blindsides us when suddenly our loved one can’t remember important dates, events, or people. So many times, after my mom passed, I wished I’d asked her about this person or that event. She lost her speech a few years before her death, so even at that point I was unable to get the stories I long for now.
One of the struggles for caregivers is finding activities their loved one can participate in and enjoy. A simple activity such as watching birds at a feeder or paging through a photo album can be the perfect time for a relaxed conversation about family, growing up in a different era, how life has changed. The activity becomes less about doing and more about being. Enjoy a favorite dessert (how about a popsicle or ice cream cone?) and talk about what they loved to eat as a child, or a food they haven’t had for a while.
Don’t make it a marathon session where you try to get every question answered. Let ideas and memories unfold naturally, with subtle prompts. You’ll be surprised to hear stories they’ve never told before, or details you missed in previous conversations. Record the conversation for both accuracy and as a memento for when you long to hear their voice.
The list below is designed to start those conversations you don’t want to miss, a catalyst for gathering family history, medical history, and simply getting to know your loved one even better. While not exhaustive by any means, the questions are grouped by topic to help you organize your thoughts and decide what is most important. And don’t forget to jot down thoughts that pop up as you read through the list.
In the Beginning
- Was there a story behind the name you were given when you were born?
- Did you have siblings? Where were you in the birth order? How did you and your siblings get along? What did you do as children?
- What did you dream of becoming?
- Did you know your grandparents? Aunts and uncles? Cousins?
- What was your childhood home like? (Farm, apartment, single-family home. Favorite room, hiding places. Electricity, plumbing, telephone, etc.)
- Who was your best childhood friend? What did you like doing?
- How did you celebrate holidays, birthdays, special events? Were there any special traditions? (special menu, treasured plate, etc.
- What was your neighborhood/community like? What did you like about growing up there?
- What was school like when you were growing up?
- What did you like best about school? Least?
- What were you good at in school?
- Did you graduate from high school? College? What did you do after leaving school?
- What do you like to do? What makes you laugh?
- What do you miss doing?
- Is there anything you always wanted to do but didn’t?
- What is harder for you to do now?
- What special heirlooms have been handed down? (recipes, treasured items)
- What stories have been handed down through the generations? (unique or notorious ancestors, talents)
- Which parent are you most like? Which parent are your siblings most like? (quirks, looks, talents) Are there family traits you all share?
- What do you most want people to know about your family? (current and past family members, contributions to the community, faith traditions)
Take photos of family heirlooms, awards, recipes, and other items that can be lost in a move or simply misplaced. One of my mother’s favorite things to do as her Alzheimer’s progressed was tear paper. Perhaps in her mind she was cutting coupons or tearing out recipes. We never figured out why she liked doing it, but it kept her happy and occupied so we provided newspapers, magazines, etc.
Unfortunately, we left our family photo album with her and discovered it ripped to shreds one day. We were heart broken as that album held not only our immediate family’s photos but also those of long-departed friends and relatives. Some of the photos were salvageable but most were lost. Depending on how Alzheimer’s alters your loved one’s behavior, be careful allowing them to keep beloved, priceless items unattended.
While dementia steals short-term memory, long-term memories often remain intact longer. Asking questions in a conversational way can jog decades-old memories and create bonding time while preserving family history. Have fun as you uncover family treasures.
What surprising discoveries have you made with your loved one?
You can download a free copy of the Memory Maker Highlights (these 20 questions), or the full version of my Memory Maker Family History edition HERE.
Stacy Monson is the award-winning author of The Chain of Lakes series, including Shattered Image, Dance of Grace, and The Color of Truth. Her stories reveal an extraordinary God at work in ordinary life. Residing in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, she is the wife of a juggling,