If you’ve ever visited someone living in a memory care community, you may have noticed colorful display boxes positioned near residents’ doorknobs. While they certainly add charm and visual interest to resident halls, these memory boxes (as they’re often called) serve a vital function in the effort to provide an engaging and welcoming environment for members of memory care. We spoke recently with Corporate Memory Care and Engagement Manager Kelly McCarthy about the role these boxes play in our communities and others’, and the difference they make in the lives of the cognitively impaired:
What exactly are memory boxes, and where do they typically live in a memory care environment?
Sometimes called shadow or cue boxes, memory boxes are about 8” by 10” fillable containers with a clear front, positioned outside of memory care residents’ apartments at or near eye level. They’re meant to be filled with items that engage active memory in the cognitively impaired – photos, meaningful images or objects, even song lyrics.
What is their role in memory care programming?
I always tell staff that the number on a resident’s apartment door is necessary for staff and safety personnel; the memory box has a far more meaningful purpose for the resident, cueing them through meaningful objects and imagery meant to stimulate recognition and belonging. They connect with residents on a deep emotional level that is still very reachable, despite the limitations of dementia and cognitive impairment.
What are memory boxes filled with, typically, and who fills them?
When I speak with families and staff about the contents of memory boxes, I like to use the image of an 18-wheeler and the way it’s arranged. The first items to be packed in the trailer are the last to come out; the same goes for memories for those with dementia and cognitive issues. So while family members might be inclined to fill memory boxes with current photos – of grandchildren, say, or from family gatherings – their efforts are more successful when they reach back to connect with more distant memories for mom or dad. If mom rode horses as a child or teenager, she’s more apt to respond to a photo of her at the stables, or her old riding crop. Objects that evoke Dad’s years in the military will no doubt resonate with him more than photos taken at a grandchild’s ballet recital last week.
While staff members are always willing to dive in and help, they really look to family members who know their loved ones the best to provide the photos and memorabilia that will resonate most strongly. We find also that family members enjoy the process and get a lot out of searching for meaningful artifacts to include.
Can you think of an anecdote that illustrates how residents tend to respond to memory boxes?
I knew a male resident once who had been a big sailor his whole life. His family had filled his memory box with pictures of him on his sailboat. Whenever we gave prospective community members a tour, he loved it when we would ask to include his apartment on the itinerary. Before he would invite people in, he would take them over to his memory box and say “That’s me on my boat!” and he would tell them all about the trips he took to Bermuda, or out on Sakonnet Bay. That memory box gave him such a sense of identity and belonging, and he was so proud to share it with people.