This article was written by Judith McGrath, a Clinical Practice Manager for Caregiver Homes in Wareham, Massachusetts.

When I worked in a facility that specialized in caring for individuals with memory loss, I witnessed countless people feeling disoriented, nervous, and confused. One particular day, I noticed a tearful woman anxiously wandering up and down the hallway. She appeared to be looking for something or someone. Her dementia was in an advanced stage, and she was almost completely nonverbal. As I pondered the best way to help, I saw a staff member named Anna gently taking the woman by the hand and seating her on the couch next to a "memory box". Anna put the box on her lap and opened it, pulling out a pair of bronze baby shoes. The woman stared at the shoes and took them in her hands, inspecting from all angles—all the while Anna speaking to her gently about them. Right then, a wide grin stretched across her face as she held the shoes tightly to her chest and closed her eyes. I could almost hear the thoughts of comfort and relief at last: she found something she knew. She held onto them for quite some time, no longer appearing anxious or sad.

This was the first time I witnessed someone using a memory box. Since then, I've used this simple and effective technique many times with consistently positive results. For people who are receiving care at home, their entire home is a memory box, filled with all of the sentimental reminders of their lives. Looking through a physical box of items is one activity that a caregiver or care team can utilize in their conversations with a consumer, but the beauty of living at home is their entire house contains those triggers.

Here are some suggestions for using the memory box concept in the home to calm and orient consumers:

  • Look through photo albums together
  • Watch home videos
  • Cook a favorite meal together
  • Play a board game
  • Re-read a favorite book
  • Take out old mementos such as shoes, blankets, clothes, records, egg timer, etc.
  • Create "rummaging" areas in drawers and closets (free of sharp edges and swallowable items) for the consumer to safely rediscover old relics themselves

For people struggling with memory loss, being in a recognizable setting, participating in familiar activities, and seeing and touching items that spark conversations about their lives are essential to their sense of well-being. Without familiar cues, consumers with dementia come from a place of fear and exhaustion, where their brains are always trying to fill in the gaps as more and more of their environment becomes unrecognizable. While caring for these consumers is challenging, caregivers can take solace in the knowledge that they are comfortable surrounded by the warm reminders of home.