Reminiscence work is an integral part of the programme at Jewish Care’s Sam Beckman day centre in Hendon for people with dementia. Now through the latest technology, centre members Miriam Gould and Dorit Nass can draw upon a lifetime of memories wherever they are.
The women are among the first to be involved in a project to produce digital life stories with the support of relatives and centre staff. The life stories — largely pictorial histories from childhood to recent times — are converted into coffee table albums which the subjects can peruse at home, sparking reminiscence, making them more communicative and enhancing their sense of well-being.
Jewish Care disability and dementia manager Padraic Garrett said the programme was being rolled out across nine homes and three day centres operated by the charity. Although life story work was not new, the My Life programme featured computers designed specifically for those with dementia.
Two staff members had taken a Department of Health instructional programme and had in turn trained a further 18 employees. Early indications were of benefits for clients and staff alike.
“People with dementia cannot store more recent memories. More distant memories they can store for longer. These stories tend to go back generations and they can also be interesting social history. From a staff point of view, it helps them understand more about a person’s life.”
Retaining a sense of identity was hugely important for those with dementia, Mr Garrett stressed.
Browsing his mother’s story book at the Beckman centre, Mrs Nass’s son, Harold, said the book was left out prominently at home. She often leafed through it — “I know because she never puts it back in the same place” — and he had noticed a difference in her demeanour. “When she looks at the book, her personality changes dramatically. She gets very emotional when she remembers a picture but it also has a calming effect. Before she wasn’t doing much in the evenings. Now she is more animated. And if my friends come round, they’ll look at the book.”
When selecting the photos, he had found it difficult to strike the right balance in depicting the life of his mother, who is almost 89 and came to Britain on the Kindertransport. The final selection runs from her starting school to family gatherings and celebrations. “My barmitzvah photos were the most relevant because they spanned the generations of family.”
Mrs Gould’s daughter, Susan Jacobs, said her 96-year-old mother had “always spoken about things from her past.
“This is a very good prompt. I leave it in the lounge and she’s always picking it up. She’ll remark about a picture. And the great-grandkids love it because it tells them stories.”
With the death and funeral of Margaret Thatcher in the news, a topical inclusion among the family photos and mementoes was a photo of the late prime minister with Mrs Gould at her bowls club.
“And she is definitely not curtseying,” Ms Jacobs insisted.
Looking on, Sam Beckman deputy manager Katarzyna Lekarska gives a demonstration of the wider aspect of the system, allowing users to play games or listen to music.
Ms Lekarska enjoyed working on the story books and had found that it made the subjects more assertive — “and it gives us more insight into their lives”.