As we get back to work with fond memories of the holidays spent with family and friends, we recall the good times and conversations we enjoyed or endured. Hopefully, some of those were with our parents. It’s interesting that we can go about thinking we know a lot about our parents. After all, we’ve been around them our entire lives. We know foods they like, where they went to school, some of their friends, and maybe, even where they met and things about their life before they had children. But do we really know them?
If you have any experience with Dementia in whatever form, you know that memories can fade fast along with names and places. The further it progresses, the less your parents can remember. Except for the early years. It has something to do with storing significant and early events in your life and being able to recall them when needed.
So what can we do?
First, start asking questions beyond what you already know and focus on the younger years. You may know where they were born, but do you know what their neighbors were like? What about their favorite place to play, or one of their friends, what they liked most about kindergarten, who their favorite teacher was?
Don’t be satisfied with one or two-word answers like teenagers give. Ask the why, how, where, when, and more. Help them think into their past and pull out things they hadn’t thought of for a while. If you know some of this, ask them to fill in pieces around what you already know. Ask about smells, sights, texture, hearing, tastes, they are good ways to go deeper.
I’ve been doing this with my Mom for a while. She has stage four dementia and has all the symptoms. We were out to lunch, going round and round on the same conversation when I asked this question: “What was the first memory you can recall?”
She sat there for a minute and said, “I was three or four, and my dad would give me an apple every time he would come home from work. I’d be sitting on the porch every day waiting for him, and he came up to me, opened his lunch box, and gave me an apple. I was so happy to see him.” She talked for quite a while about that memory, not repeating once, and adding details about her home that I never knew before.
On the way home, I asked if she wanted me to stop for any groceries. She turned to me, and with a smile, asked if I could pick her up some red apples. I did, and now every time we go out for lunch, she gets a new bag of apples.
Another time I asked her, “What was the first time you were scared out of your wits?” She came back immediately and said, “When my older brother threw me onto his motorcycle and took off!” I said, “Why was that so scary?” She said, “I was only five years old!” We had a good laugh and she said from that day on she didn’t want to be scared of anything. I took her sky diving with me several years ago, and she screamed with joy all the way back down to earth, at least I think it was joy.
Now it’s your turn
Whether or not your parent has Dementia or any other disease, start asking questions now, you don’t know how long they will have the capacity to tell you. It will also give you things to talk about when there are bad days. I will say to my Mom, “Tell me again about the time you were on that motorcycle,” and we’re off in conversation.
First, start with Firsts! First good memory, day of kindergarten, friend, gift, a place they went on their own, thrill ride. Pretty much any first will work.
Second, go with Bests. What was the best meal, best ride at an amusement park, best friend(s), day of their life (they’ll probably say when you were born-don’t let them get away with that!), or best vacation.
Third, ask about the music they listened to. Which band did they follow, who was the lead singer or members, did they ever see them in person, buy any music, do they still like that music. Remember to ask why. Was it the beat, style, rhythm, melody, clothing, hairstyle, or something else? Ask what music calms them down or gets them jumping. I will often tune the radio station to that type of music when we are together.
Fourth, ask about the advice they have been given. This one may be a bit more difficult, so ask if their Mom or Dad, Aunt or Uncle, workmate, manager, friend, or associate gave them any advice. What type of advice was it? Money, dating, life, work, or buying something big. Was it good or bad advice, and why?
Use your imagination. Ask them all kinds of questions. Write them down so you can recall them but also tell your siblings and children.
Memories can be painful. Try to avoid these unless you have a specific reason to pursue a bad memory. Memories that are emotional or hurtful should be approached with extreme caution. Make sure you are trained or have ready access to someone who is trained in these situations. If you stumble into one of these memories, slowly extricate yourself and try to move to a more positive memory. Don’t leave them with that bad memory – ever.
Also, memories can change to a point where we think we have a real memory, but it may be manufactured. Listen to this Hidden Brain podcast about how the mind can play tricks on you: “Did that really happen?” So, be careful and ask more questions should you run across one of these.
Question your parents about their life. They might want to know why, but rest assured they will give you insight that you never had before, deepen your relationship, and change the way you think about them. You might even want to try this on your spouse, just for the practice of course!
Let us know what new and interesting story you discovered talking with your parents. (Please, non-incriminating stories only!)