Here’s a wonderful example of my belief that if you can tap into someone’s long-term memories of things they loved throughout their lifetime, you can help them feel joy.
A gentleman named Tim wrote to me and shared a very cool story about his dad, who has dementia. Tom, Tim’s dad, was a pilot in World War II and the Korean War. Knowing that his dad’s flying career was still etched deep in his dad’s heart, Tim took his dad to Timmerman Field, an airport in Milwaukee where Tom used to go for flight training when he was in college.
Tim and his dad took a one-hour flight over Milwaukee and Lake Michigan with a certified pilot. The plane had two pilots’ seats, and Tim says that when they lifted his dad into one of the seats, Tom came alive. His interest was awakened and his long-term memory was engaged.
Here's what Tim wrote about the experience:
"After we took off, to my shock the pilot handed controls over to my dad. For the next 30 minutes he flew to perfection. It was a crowning moment for him.
"As we were approaching landing, I noticed that my dad was still flying. I asked the pilot if he was going to let my dad land the plane, and he replied, 'Damn right I am.' I was shocked and thrilled.
"As you'll see, the landing went perfectly. Bravo, daddy!"
Despite Tom’s dementia, his son and the pilot placed him in a position of complete competence. When we think of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, we tend to think of how people lose their short-term memory. A person might have a hard time remembering what they did yesterday or who visited or what they had for lunch. But what’s very strong in persons with dementia, late into their disease, is long-term memory. What they did for a living, where they grew up, activities that they performed many times throughout their life—these are the memories and the abilities that remain.
As care partners, what we want to do is tap into those strengths. This allows us to help people at all stages to still be and feel competent and safe.
I hope this story of a loving son giving his father an extraordinarily meaningful experience inspires you to tap into the memories of a person in your care. By accessing memories that are entrenched in someone’s heart, and held deeply in their mind, you can bring them happiness and fulfillment.
Check out this video
for more of my thoughts about this moving story. And please share your own experiences too! What kinds of things do you do to engage someone’s long-term memories?