How and Why to Share the Life Story of a Loved One With Dementia

Imagine that you're a person with dementia receiving help with your basic care needs. Due to word-finding difficulty, memory problems or other symptoms of dementia, you might not be able to clearly converse about your life, your preferences, or your family. Perhaps there's a special person you're missing at the moment but you can't figure out how to explain that to your caregiver to ask them to call him or just talk about him. This is where the telling of your life story becomes important.

One way to aid people with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias in the above situation is to develop life stories to display and share with others. Life stories can give caregivers and visitors a clear picture of the person with whom they're interacting.

Woman's hands holding old photos
Images by Fabio / Getty Images

What Is a Life Story?

A life story is a brief summary of a person's course over their life, significant people, events and characteristics. It provides history and an understanding of who the person is, especially when Alzheimer's or another dementia robs them of the ability and words to express this.

Reasons to Share Life Stories

What to Include

Information and topics to consider when developing a life story include preferred name, family (significant others, children), jobs, homes, a favorite pet, accomplishments, travels, retirement, favorite music or television shows, grooming preferences, personality, humorous memories, hobbies, talents and an involvement in a faith. Think about what you would want those caring for you to know about you, or what piece of your life story is important and meaningful to you.

Ways to Develop and Share Life Stories

The process of developing a life story can serve as a meaningful activity for people in the early stages of dementia. For those who are in the middle or later stages, family or close friends will need to help in this project. A few ways to develop and share life stories include:

  • Write it out: If you're a gifted writer, you can write your own life story and include special people and compelling events. It may be helpful to use headings and bullets so that the main points you want to emphasize are easily spotted when someone is scanning the page. You can also assist someone else in writing a life story by using a fill-in-the-blank form or writing freely after interviewing the person or her family member. There are also life story templates that you can use for guidance in this process.
  • Compile a photo collage or book: A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say. Choose photos that are meaningful and demonstrate important aspects of the person's life. You could include family and friends, vacations, homes, pets, and work projects. One person I knew had an album full of architectural projects he had worked on. These provided great conversational starting points as, despite his dementia, he recognized each project.
  • Make a Movie: Does your loved one have a bunch of slides and photos from way back? You can transfer them onto a DVD and add some audio descriptions about the pictures.
  • Fill a Memory Box: A display box with a plexiglass cover can be hung by or in your loved one's room. Choose a few older pictures or mementos to display in the box. Some facilities use these in their dementia units and the familiar items hung right outside their door signal that the residents are "home". You can also fill a box with laminated photos and other special items that people can go through to reminisce together.
1 Source
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  1. Dementia UK. Guidance for using the Life Story Book Template. March 2017.

Additional Reading

By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.