Create a Memory Box for Loved Ones with Dementia

We’ve all felt the tug of something tangible snapping us back to moments in our past, such as the whiff of our grandmother’s perfume on a stranger, which reminds us of her warm embrace, or the notes of a favorite song that instantly transport us to our teen years.

For the more than 6 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease, sifting through a memory box can be as soothing as a hug, thanks to the memories it jogs.

“My sister made a photo album for my mom when she was in a nursing home. It had pictures and a story of her life, so those taking care of her would know more about her,” says Donna Germann, senior executive director at Artis Senior Living of Elmhurst. “She included pictures and typed small paragraphs to go along with the pictures.”

Touchable and tactile pieces like rosaries, figurines, and items from a loved one’s professional life can spur even deeper recollections.

“There are several types of memory boxes, such as shadow boxes and reminiscing boxes, all of which can help people living with dementia connect to memories and retain a sense of identity,” says Mallory Graffagna, executive director of Maple Glen, a Koelsch memory care community, in Glen Ellyn.

“While these boxes help elders connect with the things they are forgetting, they are also beneficial to family members who can use the items as conversation starters and opportunities for storytelling,” Graffagna says.

Koelsch Communities believes in the concept so much that staff members create shadow boxes to display outside each resident’s apartment, which can help residents identify their space and connect with their past.

“Seeing familiar items reminds residents they are unique, special people,” Graffagna says. “When we create these shadow boxes, we include items that showcase the resident’s life and personality. For example, if someone loved to travel, we may include maps and personal photographs, whereas, for a resident who was an accomplished athlete, we might gather their awards and a miniature football for the shadow box.”

Including conversation-starters is key; they can help forge connections with family and friends, new and old.

“These boxes spark memories and are wonderful tools for people who are losing connections to themselves and those around them,” Graffagna says.

Just call it a ticket to a much-needed stroll down memory lane.

Items to Include in a Memory Box

Mallory Graffagna, executive director of Maple Glen, a Koelsch memory care community in Glen Ellyn, suggests putting together memory boxes that are multi-sensory — with items that can be touched, smelled, and listened to — because people living with dementia often have a difficult time following along with words.

“You can include actual items from a person’s life and, if needed, supplement with images found on the internet and memorabilia purchased at a vintage store,” she says.

Use objects that have color and texture. Some items to include are:

  • Photographs
  • Newspaper stories
  • Awards and ribbons
  • Religious figurines
  • Harmonica or small instruments
  • Cooking utensils
  • Passports
  • Maps
  • Sports memorabilia
  • Hat or favorite clothing
  • Letters from loved ones