Frances’ memories of her large Italian-American family, of being raised on a farm growing strawberries, of placing pine needles around the young strawberry plants; her memories of wandering in the nearby forest, of sneaking into the one-room school to “sample” pastries; her memories of Huey Long, of the breakup of her parents’ marriage – were all detailed and fresh as Frances preserved her life story on video.
The room seemed to close in around her as the afternoon played out and Frances came alive remembering the details of her life. She closed her eyes and recounted the night she and her husband were woken up by the call that another Kennedy had been shot – and specialist help was needed immediately.
You might be surprised to read that Francis has advanced stage Alzheimer’s disease.
Memory loss affects well over 5 million Americans. But we don’t have to sit back and watch it happen – there are steps you can take to preserve important family memories, as the story of Francis demonstrates.
Sole repository of family memories
Frances is now 82 years old and lives with her daughter in Southern California.
She was born in Louisiana and moved to Los Angeles when she was 20. Her husband was a famous neurosurgeon who was called in to operate on Bobby Kennedy after he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968. Frances has a warm smile and a soft southern accent.
Frances’ husband died many years ago. So Frances has become the sole repository of family history memories – like her upbringing in rural Louisiana, how she and her husband met, her husband’s own struggles to become a nationally renowned medical specialist, the events of that fateful night in June 1968 when the government car arrived to take him to the most important operating theater of his life, their decisions over the years affecting the children. Important matters for her two daughters.
But Frances has Alzheimer’s disease and has severe difficulty in remembering people she has just met and conversations she had just moments ago. Is there any hope of recording these longer term family memories on video?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and it is progressive, which means that the memory loss gets worse over time. One of the more enduring myths of the disease is that it is caused by using aluminum cans and cooking pots. There is no evidence to support that theory, nor the theory that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by flu shots, the artificial sweetener Aspartame, or silver fillings.
For most families, the cause of memory loss is less important than treatment, and dealing with its consequences.
StoryCorps is one organization that is working to preserve the memories of Americans suffering from memory loss. StoryCorps is an independent, nonprofit group whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve their stories. Founded in 2003, StoryCorps gives participants the opportunity to leave an audio (but not video) legacy for future generations.
Frances’ daughter wanted to preserve not just Frances’ voice, but also her face, her smile, her personality. So a family history video made more sense than a bare audio recording to help deal with her memory loss.
While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, drugs can help slow its progression. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease currently affects over 5 million Americans. That is a whole lot of memory loss.
Do Alzheimer patients and people with other types of memory loss have memories worth preserving on video?
Memory loss if often gradual
The first piece of good news is that memory loss is often gradual. And in the case of Alzheimer’s Disease, the memory loss first affects short term memories. While this can be the cruelest blow to the family – not even being recognized by your own parent – it does mean that long term memories are often still perfectly in tact and can be saved through video.
The Mayo Clinic says that caregivers for people with memory loss become their stand-in memory. And it is up to them to help create external repositories for their memories. The Clinic says that memories can be preserved by writing stories in a journal, creating scrapbooks, storing mementos in a special box or chest or making a video recording of personal stories.
Getting started saving memories
You may want to start by reminiscing with your loved one about his or her family history, traditions and celebrations. Often, childhood games, homes and pets are good opening topics – especially as Alzheimer’s progresses and your loved one has trouble remembering recent events. You might also talk about favorite sports, books, music and hobbies, as well as cultural and historical events.
When she was asked about some more recent events, it was obvious that Frances’ memory was totally blank. Her memory loss in that area is near total. Two final questions were about her health (“good”) and about her memory: “Well, I answered the questions pretty good didn’t I?” she smiled, just a tad proudly.
Alzheimer’s disease is not the only cause of memory loss. Depression, dementia, stroke, alcohol, drugs and old age can all cause a degradation of memory. And a bit like the hard drive on a computer, the memory loss is often located in one area – leaving other areas in tact or at least less degraded. And those areas can be recovered and preserved in another form. And keep in mind that memories in patients with conditions of this kind can sometimes be jogged and improved by prompts from place (revisiting old haunts), by smells and especially by photographs.
Mercifully, for many people who suffer from memory loss, something can be done to safeguard their remaining memories. The experience of recording a life story on video is pleasurable for the subject and helps put at rest one of the anxieties of the family – that priceless family history is imperiled.
Life story video is a kind of immortality – memories recorded on video, properly preserved, will last forever. And the delight that is people like Frances will live on for families and all their following generations. Memory loss need not be forever.