When high school students in Michigan used technology to connect people with dementia to memories that shaped their lives, the world expanded for everyone involved.
Read more about how a high school student project is helping people with dementia recall their lives and helping students and staff provide seniors with better memory care.
Arlene, who is 91 and has dementia, smiles as the video rolls, bopping her head to its musical introduction, Glenn Miller’s swing classic, “In the Mood.” “There you are, the star of the show,” says Sabrina Helmer, 17, who’s sitting beside Arlene and young enough to be her great-great-great-granddaughter.
Before Arlene and Helmer met, she assumed that dementia generally caused someone to be depressed because they can’t recall cherished memories. Now, thanks to her work on a video project that puts people’s lifetime recollections at their fingertips, Helmer has a different view.
In 2017, Helmer and three other students at Saline High School in Saline, Michigan, participated in “Creating a Real-Life Video Experience for Individuals Facing Memory Loss,” a project sparked by Denise Rabidoux, president and CEO of EHM Senior Solutions, a senior living and care provider in Saline.
“I wanted the students to see that people with dementia can live full and joyful lives, even if they’re now living their life in a different way,” says Rabidoux. “This project offered a person-centered way for students to find out as much as they could about this person with dementia and create a multi-dimensional friendship.”
The video project paired four students from Saline High School’s STEAM Program (science, technology, engineering arts and manufacturing program) individually with adults with memory impairment. Helmer was assigned to Arlene. The three other students’ subjects were men in their 80s, two living in adult foster care in EHM’s Brecon Village and another who resided with his wife. Arlene lives at Brecon Village’s Memory Support Center.
The students’ mission: To record images and interviews from a person’s life that he or she could access to help with memory recall.
Students worked closely with team members of EHM’s Memory Support Center and Adult Day Program. They also received training from a project manager and videography leader from iN2L (It’s Never 2 Late), the technology company that supplied its touchscreen FOCUS tablet to record and store the videos.
The FOCUS tablet offers brain fitness and memory games but can also hold personal photos and videos to prompt memory recall. Around 2,000 senior living communities in North America and other countries use iN2L’s touchscreen technology in group and individual settings to provide better memory care for residents.
The mobile device broke down barriers of age and cognitive differences between Arlene and Helmer. “Arlene was thrilled with this new device she hadn’t seen before and Sabrina [Helmer] was proud of the content she’d put together that captured this person’s life.”
By the time Helmer, a high school senior, shows Arlene the video of Arlene’s house and yard, along with an interview where Arlene talks about her childhood and camping as a Girl Scout troop leader, she and Helmer are at ease with each other. They’ve come a long way from their initial introduction.
When Arlene and Helmer first met, the teen feared that she’d mistaken someone else for her video subject when Arlene said she wasn’t involved with Girl Scouts. Fortunately, EHM staff steered Helmer away from trying to form a connection with details that Arlene couldn’t always remember. “They told me to start with simple things,” says Helmer. “It’s human emotions that you have to connect with first.”
In Arlene’s interview video, Arlene’s daughter nudges her to recall her old Girl Scout camping nickname, “Fearless,” and that of her co-leader, “Doubtful.” “Oh, that’s right,” Arlene chuckles. “I forgot about Doubtful.” At another point, Arlene sings along to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” a favorite song.
During the interview, Arlene sometimes falters, when she’s unable to remember how many children she has or the name of the street for her childhood home. Other times, her eyes light up, like when she talks about her love of reading or her 30 years delivering Meals on Wheels. “That was something that was really worth it,” Arlene says.
Then there’s the video of Arlene’s modest white house, set back on a yard filled with swaying sunflowers and a vegetable garden flourishing with broccoli, cabbage and rows of tomato plants. Arlene tended those gardens for decades, selling the produce and donating 50% of proceeds to Food Gatherers, a Michigan food bank headquartered in Ann Arbor.
The other students also filmed locations significant to their subjects, such as a model airplane air show for a model airplane hobbyist. One video features dogs romping at a dark park frequented by another man and his wife, avid dog lovers. Another takes a tour of greenery and playgrounds at a local park where one man spent much of his time.
Each person’s family also received their loved one’s videos on a tablet, so they could easily access memory-jogging footage that allows them to connect with that person. So, instead of initial awkwardness when Dad or Mom can’t remember their children’s names, the images are there to help them relate.
“This is a way to eliminate that barrier between a person with memory loss and that other person,” says Rabidoux. “At any given time, they have a personal tablet where they can go back and say, ‘Yes, I remember that house and that garden. These are the songs I love.”
Today, Arlene’s daughter lives in her mother’s house, cultivating the gardens, still donating proceeds. The grounds remain much as they were before Arlene moved to Brecon Village. However, Helmer isn’t the same person she was before spending three months filming, editing and getting to know Arlene.
“It was an eye-opener for me, realizing that through dementia and everything that was blocking her memory, Arlene still had a strong connection with her past,” says Helmer.
Have you helped a senior loved one with dementia recall their lives through images or video? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.
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