8 Ways to Preserve Family Memories While You Can

Make a visual, verbal record of your loved ones before dementia worsens

An often-overlooked reality of Alzheimer's is that your parent's memories and knowledge of family history will eventually disappear along with her personality. Fortunately this doesn't happen instantly. Early in the disease process, even when short-term memory loss is obvious, long-term memories tend to persist. So now's the time to capture what she knows for future generations.

Before you're left with regrets that you don't know more about your parent's past, take steps to preserve them. This siren call to action is one of the few upsides to an Alzheimer's diagnosis . As you open a window into your parent's life, you might glean some useful insights into your family life -- and you'll surely enjoy these meaningful ways of spending quality time together now.

Record your parent reminiscing.

Make a video of your parent responding to questions from you or another family member. Talking is usually easier for older parents than writing memories down, and you'll be glad later that you saved your parent's likeness and voice in addition to preserving family stories. Those cadences and styling quirks may seem indelibly familiar now, but the disease tends to erase them over time. You'll treasure having them on tape. So will relatives, so make copies and share.

Ask about her childhood, how she met and married, her jobs, thoughts about parenting, and opinions on matters big (whom she voted for and why) or small (her favorite singers or actors).

If your parent is nervous in front of a camera, have someone else surreptitiously do the recording or set up a tripod. She'll focus on you and the topics, and eventually forget that you're recording her. If she objects to any kind of filming, at least you can create an audio file.

Some guidelines for a more productive oral-history session:

  1. Avoid questions with yes or no answers.
  2. Avoid interrupting; you may break her concentration.
  3. Supply encouraging murmurs ( mmm-hmm, really, ah ) as you would in a conversation.
  4. Try not to correct information you know is wrong. She may feel insulted and quit.
  5. Try to time the interview when your parent has her usual peak energy level in the day.
  6. Try not to press too hard. There may be topics or people she doesn't want to go into, so gently shift to a new line of questioning. Or she may not remember; if so, just move on.
  7. Keep a glass of water, tissues, and plenty of tape handy, so you won't have to stop the camera to fetch them if they're necessary.

How to hold on to family memories

Analyze and digitize old loose images.

Those shoeboxes full of old black-and-white prints, the dusty albums you took possession of during a move, the slides no one has looked at in 20 years since the cumbersome slide projector broke -- they're a trove of memories just waiting to spring back to life.

First get them in shape for viewing. Many old family pictures from the 1970s and earlier were taken in 35mm slide format. Check under your parent's bed or on high closet shelves for those white plastic storage cases, round Kodak carousels, or pastel Opta-Vue cases from the 1940s and 1950s. Digitally scanning old slides and prints converts them into JPEG or TIFF formats, which you can then save onto CDs or DVDs or an external hard drive. You can do this at home with a digital scanner or send them to a photo lab. If your parent has vision problems, she may enjoy the project more if she can view the enlarged images on a big computer screen.

While you're at it, preserve the images for the future. Digitizing all the images can be time-consuming and expensive, but it's worth at least weeding through them to select key images to scan, such as portraits. Digital archiving also allows you to make multiple copies of priceless old photos and documents -- wise in the event of a fire or other disaster. You'll also save these images from the natural ravages of time, such as fading, discoloration, or mold.

Ideally, relocate the vintage originals into archival-quality albums or photo boxes. ( Look for acid-free paper or cardboard). If you don't have time, whatever you do, remove them from the film-covered pages of old "magnetic" albums, which are highly acidic and hasten deterioration.

Be sure to transfer old home movies -- your parents' wedding, your first steps, that family trip to Disneyland -- to DVD as well.

Now you're ready to enlist your parent's help in sorting, identifying, and dating the old photos. Even if she's fuzzy on the details, she's apt to recognize more old faces than you are, or she can help you sort out piles loosely divided by era. Make notes lightly in pencil on the backs of photos or underneath images in albums. Start with a handful at a time so as not to overwhelm her.

Pore over photo albums, old and new.

Turn off the TV set on your next visit and pull out the old family album instead. Ask prompts as you go: Who is that? What happened to him? What's happening here?

Don't rely on your own memory -- jot down the stories you're told and add them to the album later. Under the pictures, write down the names of people in the photos and their relationships, even those you don't think you'll forget. You're also preserving history for your own children and grandchildren.

In some families the volume of albums is overwhelm ing. You could make a great gift for your parent and your relatives by culling selected pictures and creating a customized photo book. These feature digital images printed right onto the pages of a hardbound or spiral-bound book. Pull together an overview of your parent's life or just one portion (her childhood, time in the service, a particular trip or job). Check out Kodak Gallery , Shutterfly , Snapfish , and Apple for resources. If you or a relative is an ace cropper, you can also turn old photos into scrapbooks that serve a similar purpose.

Buy a fill-in-the-blank memory book.

Parents who enjoy writing but lack the confidence or ability to stick to a narrative might welcome a ready-made memory book, which is full of prompts with spaces for answers. Sold at bookstores and gift shops, some memory books are general while others focus on childhood, marriage, or Christmas and other celebrations. A parent who's resistant about dredging up childhood memories for you might enjoy filling in a memory book intended as a gift for her grandchildren.

More on preserving family history

Fill in your family tree.

If the genealogy bug hasn't already bitten you, you'll soon discover that tracing your family history through the generations has never been easier, thanks to simple software programs such as Legacy , Family Tree Maker , and Ancestral Quest . Among the kinds of details your parents may know -- but never had reason to mention before -- are maiden names, long-lost cousins, and relatives who died young.

Travel to your parent's hometown.

Baby boomers' parents were the last generation to grow up in such vast numbers not in suburbs but in small towns and on farms. For a parent, a visit to a hometown can make for a memorable multigenerational vacation. For your parent, this may be a last opportunity to "go home again," while for you and your children, it's like having a tour guide to the past. There's no substitute for seeing a place through your parent's eyes and listening to her stories with friends and relatives who may still be there.

Learn the stories of things.

Photographs naturally attract the most emphasis as memory prods, but don't overlook the objects in your parent's home. Stories also abound in those things that have been around so long we've ceased to notice them. Talk to your parent about her collection of souvenir spoons, the knickknacks on a shelf or dresser, or the contents of a cedar chest. Why did she save these particular things? What was their appeal? When were they obtained and where did they come from? The object can be a springboard to anecdotes you may never have heard before.

Emphasize to your parent that you're not asking to have these objects. You're just curious about the stories behind them. If your parent is amenable, you could even jot down pertinent details ab out source or age on a bit of masking tape on the bottom of each object so that no one forgets.

Get "famous" family recipes down on paper.

Recipes are another type of heirloom, often overlooked until it's Thanksgiving and suddenly you and your siblings realize that nobody knows the secret ingredient in your mom's acclaimed cake or your dad's trademark barbecue sauce. The foods families share are often composed as much of tradition, religion, and travel as they are of flour or salt.

If she's still able to do so, ask your mom to make her favorite dish while you write down (or record on video) what she does step-by-step.

Take the idea a step farther and create a family cookbook including the signature dishes of all your aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings as well as your parents -- the special foods associated with reunions, birthdays, and other family gatherings.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

over 7 years, said...

I know some who have taken such stories, gathered pictures and put them into a hard bound book for the individual and family members. http://www.photobooklady.com helps people do that. People from different places can also contribute to the book, creating a wonderful memory book for the individual and family. There may be some reading the post who could use this.

over 7 years, said...

"I tried to complete a family history myself at one point in time, which I found to be nearly impossible. I always found excuses to put it off and finally gave up on the project. I was so happy when I discovered Relive Stories. Their professional writers are incredible, from their interviewing skills all the way to the custom-designed book. A huge thanks to Relive for finishing what I started many years ago."

over 7 years, said...

We used Relive Stories to make our remembrance/life celebration book. All we had to do was tell our stories/memories to our writer, submit pictures, and they did the rest. www.relivestories.com

about 8 years, said...

Great ..true preserved it.. I did to an extent..it's in my brain and I created a website for the family as a memorial to mom: this is how I dealt with it: Stop eating processed American foods, stop eating out of aluminum pans,stop drinking America's favorite drink Coke or any other soda in an aluminum can. You need to do more than puzzles, read critical material..of your interest, dabble in the arts if you are already highly educated and have been a thinker...create with your hands sculpture, paint, learn an instrument. Get treated for underlying depression. LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE.Enroll in senior citizens classes in other words get up off your duff and stop thinking that retirement means sitting around enjoying the sunshine. Don't be obstinate,pray and think use your brain mind and soul. Dementia called a part of the Alzheimer's syndrome does improve if you out live it.. nobody had any of these diseases at 100. I saw my mom go through the first stages, (talking to herself, soiliquys, accusatory , suspicious, sometimes caustic and hurtful. I chose to ignore what the medical profession said and treated her as normal, we fussed and carried on.. she lived to 94,speaking 2 languages i spoke to her about politics, music, my opinions, family in OTHER WORDS I ENGAGED HER IN INTELLIGENT CONVERSATION. I played Chopin, classical music helps,prayed with her encouraged her..in the end she died from malnutrition at the hands medical so called medical professionals.

about 8 years, said...

I liked the article. My Grandparents and Parents felt, who had the pictures controled family history. Family pictures for us begin with glass negetives from the 1800's. Pictures have also caused the biggest family fights. Mom and Dad became hoarders. Dad's passed away now and Mom is in late stages, so we have relatives working on the oral history . When Dad passed away we started cleaning the house. I found pictures stashed everywhere in anything. The project went from days to months. It became a salvage operation. In the end I found Hundreds of pictures and negetives. Anxiety was the key issue for me to deal with. The more Mom felt I was not stealing, but trying to save her heirlooms the quicker she allowed me to work. Scanning and digitizing is a must. You can repair and restore alot easier now. The focus is put back on the content of the picture not the condition. "That picture is (bent, torn, faded, etc)put it away dont touch they aren't for looking at".Older pictures are too small and fragile, but show them on a computer screen or tv and it's better than Donahue (Mom's, old must see show). Copy them off and send them to relatives to help with family oral history. I am also taking pictures or scanning memorabilia that go with the pictures, baby announcments, birthday cards, Valentines cards, fronts of old albums that are falling apart. Those 50 glass negetives were found; in the garage, on a shelf, in a paper bag marked tile, under old spray cans.

about 8 years, said...

Oops! It seems that this forum doesn't display the same way it does when you're typing comments in. I apologise [apologize] for it looking as though it's all one long sentence.

about 8 years, said...

I agree, this is a very well put together article. Although this "Reminiscence Therapy" tends to focus on the individual, don't forget that people can reminisce about other people and places that they might ordinarily remember, such a famous politicians, pop stars, movie actors, and the like. (You may find that 'official' Reminiscence Therapy packs cost quite a bit of money, but you can put something very similar together for yourself and your loved one.) Sounds, too, may be able to be used. In the United Kingdom, we have a tendency to use such sounds as air raid sirens and the like, old-time music hall sounds, famous speeches, etc. Old newspapers, that report 'famous' (or should that be infamous) cases can also be used. It creates a starting point for more in-depth discussion. You could prompt your loved one by asking if they remember the case; what their feelings were at the time; how they feel about it now; what they thought of any court proceedings that happened; what they thought of the sentence handed down, etc. Think back to your loved one's previous hobbies. Did they have an interest in gardening, motorcycling, photography, angling? See if you can get a hold of some old magazines ... and some new ones. Prompt your loved one with questions such as how they used to do their hobby; how much it used to cost them; differences in how things used to be done, and how they're done these days. If they're still mobile, try to get them interested, even if only marginally, in 'doing' something again, even if it's just dead-heading flowers, raking the lawn, hoeing the vegetable plot (I would imagine that most places will have this sort of opportunity for dementia sufferers to take part ... we did in the residential home that I used to run.) I agree with Story Saver that this article does serve as a reminder that people ought to get the stories, etc. of their loved one(s) preserved while they can but, sadly, that isn't always possible as dementia may have progressed some way before family members fully realise [realize, for my American cousins] what's happening. Some excellent suggestions offered by Story Saver with getting people such as college students and the like involved. (Many students would be willing to undertake such a thing at a very reasonable cost, and they may be appreciative of you putting their name forward to other 'clients'.) Blessings to all that are dealing with this difficult area of life. Lots of Love and Light. Mick x x x x x x x P.S. Please don't be offended, or alarmed, at the "x's". It's merely a logo, of sorts, that I've used for some 30-odd years now ... from way before Political Correctness came into vogue.

over 8 years, said...

This is a great article that serves as a reminder for people to get the stories of their loved ones preserved while they can. Another idea is to have a loved one look at photos and use video or audio to record their comments. I am doing that with my mother. Her dad was an amateur photographer and took a lot of photos of her. We just unearthed a box of photos no one was aware of and a lot of them are of her. So I'm going to audio tape her sharing stories/comments about each pic and then create a digital slideshow of the pics with her comments. You can hire a college student who's savvy with this sort of thing to put the two together. You can do the scanning and the taping and it would't take a lot of work for them to combine it.