First I have a confession to make.
The decision to place my father in an assisted living community was one of the most wrenching in my families lives. He suffered from Parkinson’s and Lewy’s Body dementia. He was sundowning, which meant he was up all night and dozed all day. My mother was visibly failing as she wore out caring for him. We had help around the clock for him and it wasn’t helping.
Moving to Assisted Living
We made the decision and set off to visit the communities. We were lucky. The building was lovely. The staff was caring and professional. We had every confidence he would be in terrific hands. But it was a tough thing for us all. My vital, strong, cool Dad was going to live somewhere else! For 50-odd years home meant Dad. It was a break, a terrible break from normal.
But things hadn’t been normal for a long time.
Parkinsons had crept up on us all and we all prepared for this break in different ways. Mom committed to visiting every day and taking him out every day, to go back home, to go out for coffee or dinner. I focused on what would be — where he’d sleep or watch TV or entertain visitors, where he would spend most of his time, the place he would eat, the common room, the courtyard where he could be outside — lovely as it all was, it was different.
How to Pack Memories
So I started a Memory Book. I am a visual person. I see pictures, and the pictures fill with sounds and memories. I took Dad in the car and took photos, with him beside me, of familiar places: the clubs he belonged to, the car he washed nearly every day, the front of the house that he had seen every day, many times a day. We captured his office, his boat, his trophies, and the Y where he worked out every lunch hour.
I wanted him to bring these photos with him to the community he was a part of. Why? I suspect a part of me wanted so much to bring the big life my father had led into this community. “See”, the book says, “I am more than the sum of this lovely, comfortable room. I led a big life, I had challenges and pleasures and I made a difference. I had appetites, I had disasters, and I had love”.
And so, the book.
Changing Perceptions & Conversations
I knew I was on to something when I was greeted by the staff when I walked in and thanked for bringing them the memory book. They were grateful for it.
They told me that they often went to spend time with Dad and they would ask how he was feeling, who had visited, and chat about the weather. The book changed the conversation. Now, they would go in, see Dad, and suggest they open a page of the book. He loved that.
Suddenly, he became more than this man in a room with photos of his grand children all around. He became a man who had lived a big life, a life in full. He was someone who had made a difference in the community, who had shared his success with others, who had enjoyed the same pleasures of ice cream and trips to the beach that everyone else had. They learned about my Dad through the book. Not just a man with Parkinson’s, but a man with a wonderful past.
Building a Memory Book to Reconnect With The Past
Visitors who came because they missed him used the book as touchstone for memories. They left having had a satisfying discussion with Dad about a time they had shared. Dad, it seemed, remembered more because of the book. As his daughter, I realized that we had him longer, we had his mind, longer than we would have without the book. It was stimulating to read. Stimulating to look at. It helped him to fit in. He started to share it with the other people in the community. All of them had been in one of those places at one time or another.
And my father was making connections again. He had another community around him. He wasn’t a lonely guy in a room. He was a man sharing his life, his thoughts, his advice again. He became part of their community.
A Book Of Love
I call this a memory book but really, it was a book of love. Love created it. It was a way I could love him from afar. I dedicated the book. This is what I wrote:
This book is for you, Dad. It contains photos of people you love and who love you, places you have been thousands of times, places where you’ve eaten and sailed and walked, worked out, and photos of where you worked. It’s places you drove past, lived in, studied, courted, docked, raced, celebrated birthdays, holidays, weddings, baptisms, great meals, great adventures and places you came home to.
While I created this book, I could hear all the laughs and the sweet calls from the grandkids, the waves lapping the sides of the boats and the shore. I heard the snap of sails, the splash in the pool, and thought I could smell the kitchen full of cookies and pies and dinner for a table full of great stories. Turns out it’s a memory book that goes far beyond the photos. It’s a book of love.
To you. From Betsy October 15, 2015