woman hugging her mother on the couch

Making Memories This Holiday Season

Using the Five Senses to Trigger Holiday Memories

I was born in a small town with more cows than people. My memories of my town are filled with magic and the intense wonder of the world through a child’s eyes. For example, I remember the forest and our tree forts, the puddles, and the towering piles of leaves we’d jump in. That’s probably the most intense experience of freedom I’ve ever had.

As we grow, our childlike perceptions of the world are usually overlaid by the perceptions of an increasingly maturing person. It’s not that we forget what we knew as a child—it’s that the way we perceive it changes. Childhood memories can be preserved but perception is still full of wonder; my early childhood memories were preserved in a special way. They haven’t evolved into a grown-up person’s perceptions. They kept their magic.

Holidays preserve magic in the same way. There are special foods, decorations, songs, and traditions that we only bring out at that particular time. Because they’re not integrated into our everyday lives throughout the year, they have a unique power to create and to revive memories. The holiday season is all about memories, and if someone in your family has cognitive decline, it’s a balancing act to both create memories and preserve them.

Holidays that only come once a year allow us to step out of the daily flow of time and connect to the past – but this doesn’t happen automatically, it’s triggered by sensory experiences. In fact, the more senses that are involved, the more deeply the memory hits us emotionally. There’s something about a pure sensory experience that bypasses the rational mind and embeds itself deeply in the psyche. By paying special attention to the five senses, we can tap into the natural memory-triggering power of our traditions in a way that’s especially suitable for someone who has Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia.

By paying special attention to the five senses, we can tap into the natural memory-triggering power of our traditions in a way that’s especially suitable for someone who has Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia.

Taste and Smells

Start with tastes and smells. There’s a reason why most holidays revolve around food! This is the time to break out Grandma’s recipes. Filling the house with smells is filling the house with memories. Find out if there is a special treat your loved one enjoyed as a child. Even if it’s not sold in stores, you may be able to order it. There are whole businesses, for example, devoted to nostalgic candy.

Hearing

For triggering memories, a close second behind taste and smell is the sense of hearing. This is an easy one: play music! Everyone has had the experience of hearing an old song on the radio and instantly being taken back to the emotional adventures they were going through at the time the song was popular.

This is not a cerebral process. It’s not that you hear the music and think about logic, time, and place. Instead, the emotions are triggered immediately by the music. It might even take you a moment to figure out where that feeling and that connection comes from. In fact, you might even sometimes experience the emotional content without being able to remember the connection at all.

Music’s power to bypass the head and go straight to the heart: what could be more perfect for someone who has dementia? So, play the music. But also sing. Sing together if you can. You don’t need a good voice. In fact, your voice is itself a hearing-mediated emotional experience.

Sight

There are many visual experiences associated with the holidays, but I would like to suggest combining sight with touch wherever possible. People who have more advanced dementia may have trouble interpreting what they see or distinguishing one object from its background. The sense of touch adds information, but may also help trigger the emotional content of the memory associated with the object. So, for example, if you and your elderly mother are decorating a Christmas tree, hand each ornament to her before you hang it on the tree. If you’re making apple sauce, let her mash the apples.

Memories are important not only because they give us information, but because they have special access to our hearts. Even when information is lost, the emotional content of memories—especially during the holidays—may still be accessible.

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