Using Everyday Technology for People with Memory Loss

Have you ever experienced the fun of finding (or being found by) a long-lost friend thanks to the magic of Facebook? How about the joy of sharing video phone calls with loved ones who are living far away? We are so lucky to be living in such innovative times, for a wide variety of reasons. Have you ever considered how everyday technology could be used to enhance the lives of friends or family living with memory loss? It’s easier than you might think!

Let’s start with a look at the big picture as it relates to memory loss:

With Alzheimer’s disease or other related dementias, short-term memory diminishes and it becomes harder to store and recall new things, even things that have just been said or done. That often causes frustrating repetition (“You’ve said that THREE times in the last 10 minutes!”), which can lead to a loss of confidence, and ultimately result in increased isolation and/or agitation. I’ve heard from more than one adult child or family friend of someone with Alzheimer’s that they struggle with the uncertainty of how to best support and interact with loved ones. And it makes them feel sad, guilty, or even scared. These feelings can lead to avoiding or delaying contact — at precisely the time support is needed most.  

The stigma of losing your memory is real; some say the current stigma level of memory loss is similar to that faced by cancer patients 40 years ago. The truth is, the stigma of memory loss is much less today than it was even just a few years ago. However, we have new communication tools that can arm family and friends with productive ways to support conversing with the memory-challenged, helping the person with Alzheimer's stay more naturally engaged.

Narrative stories are a great example of an innovative digital solution to help engage individuals with memory loss.  It’s a storytelling format that is simply an audio recording of you talking over pictures, creating a video story.

Here’s how easy it is to create a narrative story: I think about a fond memory, such as a childhood trip to Disneyland.  Then, I search the web for some related photos and save them to my device, and snap a couple pictures from our family album. Next, using an app on my tablet or smart phone, I record a few sentences about my memories over a slideshow of those photos, which is then turned into a short digital video. That’s a narrative story!  And once digitized, the story can be shared again and again.

A narrative story I made for my mother, reminiscing about our first trip to Disneyland. This story was created using the Swaha app.

Chances are that someone with memory loss cannot access a tablet on their own, but most anyone else can (or can learn how) to play the story for them. Here is a recent example I witnessed at a nearby care community:  A memory care resident has a son across the state. That son creates a narrative story about the old family dog (photos from a Google Image search are a great resource when actual photos aren’t available). He adds a voiceover, and sends the file to the care partner in his parent’s life.  The son has just given his parent the gift of his voice, some special reminiscing, and beautiful images that can bring shared memories to life.

In the early evening, when the resident is typically anxious, the community staff can be proactive by playing her family memory and establishing a happy mindset. From funny stories to comforting prayers, the possibilities are endless.  And remember, one story can be viewed repeatedly and might seem new each time, even sparking different angles on the memory.

A perfect narrative is just 1 to 2 minutes in length. The best stories capture happy or meaningful times on topics ranging from pets, food and travel to spirituality, sports or hobbies. If you are a friend or relative, any personal event can make a great story to share.  

Total time to make a narrative story can be less than 15 minutes. Here are the steps:

  • Download the iPhone/iPad app Swaha from the Apple App Store
  • Gather some suitable images from your own digital photo collection or through Google Image search
  • Use Swaha to record yourself talking about the photos for a minute or two, and your narrative story is done!  

Two helpful hints:

  • Less is more. Using 3 to 5 photos with 1 to 2 minutes of narration is about right.
  • It doesn’t need to be perfect, but starting over is simple if you need to.

Enjoy your new communication tool and let us know what works for you!