Alzheimer's: Communicating in Pictures

Sometimes it's difficult to know how to spend time with an Alzheimer's patient. How do you talk to someone who doesn't remember the past forty years? This article is about communicating with my mother, but it changed the way I communicate with my dementia patients. Nurses Announcements Archive Article

Alzheimer's:  Communicating in Pictures

It started as a lark -- I got a free all-in-one printer with my new computer. Mom's photo album was just sitting there in my dining room, waiting for me to decide what I wanted to do with it, so just for kicks, I scanned a photograph or two. or sixteen. Then the child came home with a school assignment: assemble a family tree. since I had all of mom's photographs right there, the child -- or maybe it was me -- decided that the family tree would be better with pictures of her ancestors. The photo album was a treasure trove -- pictures of my grandparents' wedding reception, my great grandparents as young adults, and even a photograph or two of my great-great grandparents. Two sets of them, anyway. The child's family tree was an enormous success and her teacher was suitably impressed at all of the family photos she'd included.

Somewhere in between scanning in photos of the ancestors for the child's school project and wondering what to do with that photo album, I found myself scanning in all of the pictures . . . and then I started on grandma's photo album. then mine. I've burned out a scanner now, and while I'm waiting for to ship me the new one, I'm writing.

I went to visit mom last fall. I hadn't seen her for a few months -- she lives about a thousand miles away and a week with her costs me nearly a thousand dollars in air fare, car rentals, hotel room and meals. I can't visit as often as I'd like. I took my laptop this time, with the desktop and screensaver set to my photo library. Mom and I were sitting in companionable silence -- me working on the laptop and mom doing word find puzzles. Or trying to. I got up to use the restroom, and while I was gone, my laptop went into screensaver mode. When I returned, mom was staring at the screensaver, transfixed.

"I know her," she said. "That was my great-grandmother. She died when I was just a little girl, but she had a pony and I used to love to ride it." Sure enough, the picture was of my great-great grandmother, and I vaguely remembered seeing pictures of mom riding a pony. The next photo came up -- my grandmother in her "gibson girl" getup, hair in a then-stylish bun on top of her head and a flower-bedecked hat in her hand. She was beautiful. That's my mother," mom said excitedly. "She was really brave -- she went out west on a train to teach the Indian children."

I dropped the work, and my mother and I went through the photographs one at a time. It took most of the week, but I heard stories about my family that I'd never heard before. I'm trying to write them all down. I'd been worried about how I was going to spend the time with my mother. Her memory is sliding away and it's hard to converse with her. The pictures made it effortless. Mom was fascinated with the photographs and I was fascinated with her stories.

There were pictures of my sister and me as babies, and mom recognized us immediately. "That's you," she'd say. "I made that dress for you for your first Easter outfit. I had one just like it." And moments later, there would be the picture of mom and I standing side by side in our matching outfits. There were pictures that brought back memories of stories I'd heard my father tell most of my life, pictures of events that only my mother remembered and pictures that neither of us could identify but my aunts could. Mom's fading memories of the past four decades or so didn't matter while we were engrossed in pictures from long before I was born.

Last month I visited mom again, and while she's still fascinated by the pictures, her memories of them are sporadic. "That's you," she'd say, pointing at a picture of my sister eating chocolate pudding with more pudding on her clothes than could have possibly made it into her. And then she'd shake her head. "I'm not sure who that is." She's better with pictures from when she was a little girl. The next time I visit her even that may be gone. But thanks to the scanner and the photo album, I've had a magical week with my mother and I've heard stories about my ancestors I've never heard before. It's nice to have had that before those memories are gone.

Ruby Vee, BSN

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Specializes in Medical and general practice now LTC.

Excellent idea on doing a photo album and such a way to get them to remember things

Every AD pt. should be so lucky to have someone do this for them. Good stuff.

Specializes in ER,ICU.

Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. I wish I had thought of something so simple when my dad was still alive. His memory for things past was remarkable but near the end I wasn't sure he knew who I was. He was an avid photographer in his younger days. He had tons of slides from the places we visited. I had so many questions about where he served in the Navy and how he won his Purple Heart....years AFTER he died. How simple it would have been to bring in old photos and let him reminisce. You are so fortunate to have had this time with your mother.

How wonderful!

What a touching story...I wish I had did this with my mom!!!

Specializes in LTC, MDS Cordnator, Mental Health.

I am a unit coordinator for a Alzheimer's unit. we just started making a picture scrap book "this is my life" its good for the families and the residents....

Specializes in Emergency Department.


I really enjoy your stories and postings. That must have been an absolutely wonderful week with your mother. I am so happy you received that gift.

I made a picture album for my mother-in-law when she was in the nursing home and started forgetting who we were. I titled it "Merval's Family" and wrote the names and relationships under each picture. That way the staff could go through it with her when we weren't there and know who everyone was. The staff really appreciated me doing this. When she died I got the album back and still have it - it brings back some very pleasant memories of the little time we could spend with her. Like you, my husband and I live 1800 miles from where she was and did not get to see her very often. In my positions in nursing homes, I have always encouraged the families to bring in pictures and tell me who they were so I could try to help the resident remember. It has given me some very special times with my residents, especially on nights when they were restless and could not sleep. I would get out some of the pictures or look at pictures on the walls. It usually helps them relax and go to sleep better than any medication I could give them. Thanks for sharing your experience with your Mom. Keep up the good work!