How memory boxes can help dementia patients

How memory boxes can help dementia patients

It's a simple but effective idea - collecting up objects connected with a dementia patient's past and popping them all together in a box to spark memories and start conversations.

It's worked with great success at Coach House residential home, in Great Harwood, which specialises in caring for older people suffering from dementia.

First to open her memory box was 86-year-old Nelly, who found flower seeds and gardening tools, knitting wool, a sewing kit and swimming goggles, all reminding her of former pastimes and some she still enjoys. A book on Lancashire's cotton mills brought memories of her working life, while a scrapbook on the Lake District had happy connotations: "We had a caravan up there," says Nelly, "this brings back a lot of memories, oh yes it does."


Next was Hazel who, at 90, was the oldest of the three friends. Her memory box held reminders of foreign travels, including photos and postcards from Australia and New Zealand, and a world atlas. "I've been very lucky. I've been able to travel to a lot of places," says Hazel, whose keepsakes also included a golf ball, reminding her of "happy times" when her husband was Captain of their local golf club. Finally came a pair of tap shoes: "I used to go tap dancing a lot leading up to the war," says Hazel. "I loved it. I could still do it now if you wanted!"

Dancing shoes also featured in 84-year-old former mill worker Cath's memory box, again triggering happy memories: "These were only for wearing at the weekend," she says. "It was clogs during the week. We used to look forward all week to Saturday night when we could put these on and go up the dance hall."

A black and white photo of Cath on a night out with her late husband brought a happy tear, while a bag of coltsfoot rock - her favourite sweets as a child - made her laugh. One of the strangest objects was an offcut of carpet, but for Cath it brought the memories flooding back: "Ooh… the carpet factory at Rishton!

"I worked there 34 years, it was lovely. I was a wool winder. It was a heavy job, but I loved every minute of it."

Home owner John Timmins said: "After seeing the effect that the memory boxes had with these three ladies we decided to roll out the idea to all our residents," says John Timmins, the home's owner. "People with dementia can become confused, agitated and upset, but often sharing a special memory with them can be a comfort and a calming influence. Sometimes it's as simple as having an object to focus on, to ask a question about and get a conversation started."

The Alzheimer's Society advocates using a memory box for people with dementia because they can:

  • Help people recall fond memories of youth, personal interests and pastimes, holiday or working lives
  • Inspire conversation with caregivers, children or grandchildren
  • Exercise touch and other senses which people increasingly rely on as dementia progresses
  • Spur creativity in the desire to add to the memory box, or make a new one
  • Give relatives a clearer insight to their loved one, both through searching for keepsakes and talking about them.

The boxes used by residents at Townfield and Coach House were from