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Memory Card Games for Alzheimer's & Dementia Patients

By Karen Miller
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1. a: the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms

"”Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.

Memory is a process that we take for granted when it comes naturally, just like other essential functions like we never think about, such as seeing, hearing and smelling. We cruise along on autopilot until tragedy or illness impairs one of these precious gifts. Then, in a moment, our lives can be turned inside out. It's rarely a singular effect; for people with Alzheimer's and dementia, their loved ones suffer the effects of this loss, too.

Developing Games to Combat Memory Loss

I recently wrote about the memory jogging puzzles that I developed for dementia patients. I knew I was on the right track the first time I took the puzzles with the Norman Rockwell images to an Assisted Living Center with an Alzheimer's Unit to show them to the residents. It was amazing to watch the residents study the images, the men gently touching the images as if they personally knew the people in the covers from The Saturday Evening Post. The images stirred their emotions and prompted long-buried memories. Observing the residents closely, I felt inspiration strike again. Would the residents benefit from exposure to the same images, but in a different activity?

The activity directors who advised me when I designed the puzzles had said I should think of activities that young children enjoy, but find a way to make them age-appropriate, such as with an adult theme. On another trip to test my memory jogging puzzles, I brought along a few sample cards with the same Norman Rockwell images, just to see whether the residents would be interested. I'd been told that it would be best to keep the sessions no longer than a half hour because the residents get tired and they lose interest. But a funny thing happened on that visit: the residents didn't get tired and lose interest"”they had fun and they were excited. So was I!

Introducing the cards, I worked with Florence, a resident in her nineties who was very detail-oriented and quick to find matching cards. We played with the cards face up. At one point Florence picked up one of the cards and brought it to her face for closer inspection. When I asked her what she saw, she pointed to a dark area, calling it "the shadow." Then Florence told me that she was blind in one eye and had poor vision in the other. I couldn't believe it! She had been so engaged in our game up to that point that I never would have known she had a problem if she hadn't mentioned it. Even earlier in my visit, when we were working on the puzzles, she had no problems. That's when I realized: the images on the puzzles were larger, and the prototype cards were the size of regular playing cards.

After working with Florence, I decided to develop oversized cards. At 3.5 x 5", the images would be large and detailed. Florence's comment about the shadow also made me realize that there had to be separation between the colors so that they would be distinct once they were printed.