I often allude to memory boxes when talking or thinking about spirituality and aging. They were prominent in my presentation at the Abundant Living Conference at Camp Allen in the Diocese of Texas in early March. A participant at the conference recently asked for more information about memory boxes:
“I was enchanted by your concept of a ‘memory box.’ I have a brother-in-law with Alzheimer’s now and I realize how helpful it [a memory box] will be to have meaningful visits with him. And my husband and I are beginning to collect fragments of our early lives to build our own memory boxes. I would love more information about this.”
I first encountered the idea of memory boxes from articles written by caregivers of people with dementia. Caregivers, including family, friends and professionals working in nursing homes, described how photos and other mementos provided cues that helped those with dementia access memories from their childhoods.
About the same time that I was reading about memory boxes, I was co-teaching a course about aging at Virginia Theological Seminary. During class we talked about how the writing of spiritual autobiographies unlocked memories of older people and gave them new understandings of their pasts.
Two seminary students later introduced the idea of writing spiritual autobiographies to groups of older parishioners at their churches. In both cases, the older people rejected the idea as being too personal and too difficult.
Not long afterward, I was asked to lead a weekend retreat in North Carolina by an ecumenical group of women who wanted to look more deeply at spirituality through the lens of aging. Part of me wanted to introduce spiritual autobiographies to the group, but I kept hearing my students’ voice of caution.
I can remember being lost in prayer as I walked across campus one day, when the Holy Spirit broke through. What if we used memory boxes as a gentle tool in helping these women to share their stories, their joys and their losses, their strengths and their fears?
Before going to North Carolina, I tried out my plan with a group of people who gathered weekly at a retreat center on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Each week I asked them to bring a different kind of memory cue—photos, written stories, and music—that they might include in their own memory boxes.
One participant whose mother had dementia told me that memory boxes gave her hope to counteract her fear about losing control of her life. “A memory box,” she said, “would let me decide which memories from my childhood give me the greatest pleasure.”
Making a Memory Box I wrote the correspondent from the Texas conference and made several suggestions as she and her husband gathered memories for her brother-in-law.
When possible, I suggested they include him in their quest for items and talk openly about what they are doing. I invited them to share photos with him to see which elicit a response. And to play music that they think might speak to him and see if it does. As wires reconnect, even momentarily, they might see him “restored to himself.”
When my father who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s moved across the country to be with me, I carefully packed the items I thought he would most like to have around him. The certificates and honors that were so important to him as an adult were meaningless. Even photos of my mother, to whom he was married for over 50 years, sparked no memories.
However, his painting of the house where he lived as a child, a battered photo of students who attended his one-room schoolhouse, which included his neighbors and two brothers, and the stories of his cousins would always bring a smile to his face. He often added stories of his own from that long-ago time. My final advice: find mementos from early childhood for memory boxes for yourselves or people you love.
Adding New Memories I often add or subtract items from my own memory box. And I’ve even included specific instructions to go with stories I’ve written or photos I’ve selected. I ask, for example, that my caregiver set a bowl of fresh raspberries in the sun before reading a certain story and sharing with me the taste and scent of the warm berries.
What will you put in your memory box?
By Dorothy Linthicum (@dslinthicum) has been listening to and spending time with older adults to learn what they already know. Her memory box is in the photo.