If a loved one is diagnosed with mild cognitive disorder, geriatrician Dr. Elizabeth Eckstrom, co-author of our book The Gift of Caring, suggests something that I found very important as a caregiver to my dear father, who came down with Alzheimer’s.

In fact, it is something that any older person should think of doing, regardless of disability. It is one of the greatest gifts that a parent or grandparent can give their family.

What is it? Writing down the story of your life.

I learned this lesson when caring for my father. He was already suffering from Alzheimer’s, and far beyond having mild cognitive disorder. He was still living at home, however, and his memory was failing. One morning when I went to visit, I discovered the “book” he had written several years before, squirreled away in his darkroom (he was a photographer) in the basement. I had never seen it before, and had no idea he had written his memoirs! It detailed so much of his life: when he met my mother, his service in World War II, when he became a surgeon, and a pilot, and other life stories.

I ran upstairs to show it to him. Sadly, he didn’t remember anything about it.

BUT—this is the important thing I realized as a caregiver—this book my father had written several years before came in so incredibly handy when we finally had to move him to an assisted living memory facility. Why? Because it gave me something to do when I visited. I could read his own story back to him. He loved it…and so did all the other men in the unit, thinking it was their story as well!

The book gave me something else, too. It was a powerful reminder of who my father was before his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s—the person I never wanted to lose sight of.

Dr. Eckstrom recommends that all older persons write their life stories to give their children. These kinds of books can be treasures for later generations. And, it can be especially important if someone older may be heading into some kind of disability, such as cognitive disorder. It gives the person a purpose and shares with their family who they were—and still are inside.

How do you start? There are a number of questions that can act as a springboard for getting a loved one started to write down a memoir. And, if they need some help, a caregiver can offer to write their oral history for them or to record it. There are many inexpensive digital voice recorders available as well as phone apps. These recordings can easily be transferred to a computer and digitized.

The best tactic for oral history interviews or to help your loved one get going is to ask open-ended questions—not yes or no—and to focus on memories and experiences. It is much more interesting for you and your loved one to talk about the stories and emotions behind the events in your family’s past. Dr. Eckstrom has found these queries to be especially good to get going:

  • What is your first memory?
  • How did your meet Mom/Dad (or your spouse)?
  • Tell me about your childhood home.
  • Tell me about your wedding day.
  • Tell me about the day your first child was born.
  • What were your favorite school subjects?
  • Tell me about your favorite teacher.
  • Tell me about some of your friends.
  • Describe your first job.
  • What did you do with your first paycheck?
  • What was your favorite job and why?
  • Who are some of your heroes?
  • Tell me about some of your favorites songs (also books, movies and television shows.)
  • Tell me about some of the places where you’ve been the happiest.

It takes a little time, but these captured memories will be immensely meaningful in the coming years. Plus, as I saw, having a “book” you can read to a loved one with increasing memory problems can mean so much.

Remember: Despite the increasing cognitive disability that goes along with Alzheimer’s, a sufferer still has “emotional intelligence” one can connect with. Having my father’s book to share with him made for a treasured connection that brought joy to all of us. Even more, it kept in the front of my own mind who the real person was inside him.

Check out Marcy’s website, or click here to purchase her book, “The Gift of Caring: Saving Our Parents—and Ourselves—from the Perils of Modern Healthcare.

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