The Value of Preserving Memories

Just like us, the older memories grow, the more valuable they become. Memories help us to manage time past, enhance time in the present, and provide continuity and meaning for times to come. Two recent incidents reinforced to me the value of memories in our lives.

In curating an exhibit for a local museum about an outrageously obscure naval philosopher, Alfred Thayer Mahan, I had the great good fortune to meet a 99 years-young lady who had lived with his family for over 30 years. She was sharp as a tack, brimful of stories, photos and information which she had obviously been waiting a long time to share.

Just last weekend I had the honor to speak at a memorial service for a beloved aunt, where I read a memoir I had twisted my mother's good arm to write. They had met as war brides, in 1942, and remained loving sisters-in-law for over 70 years. Mom was reluctant at first, but I insisted she just write from her heart, saying "no one's left to contradict what you say any way." Her loving, detailed tribute brought my aunt's memory vividly to life for our family and friends.

These incidents simply illuminate the importance and value of eliciting and recording memories, an exercise that benefits everyone involved. I had made a habit of drawing out my late father towards the end of his life, learning a great deal, and I was gratified to watch my dad rediscover things he'd left behind long ago. I have had more practice with my mother, and have developed some useful techniques, if you will, for the "debriefing" process.

Here are some topics that are useful in drawing out your parent or loved one, especially those that may be having some memory impairment:

Aroma is a powerful mnemonic device, and discussing family meals and kitchen customs, holiday specialties and even memorably bad meals or surly waiters make for great stories.

Ask for descriptions of previous homes, apartments, neighborhoods. Google Satellite street views are very efficient ways to revisit old stomping grounds, and stroll down Memory Lane. Road trips are wonderful too, if possible.

Ladies are particularly aware of and attached to the significance of dress. A garment or pair of shoes can be a key to reminiscence. I recently came upon photos of my dad in his teenage Good Humor uniform, complete with cap and coin-changer. I wish he was around to kid about it with, and tell me about driving those little white trucks.

Melodies are timeless, and transporting. We have a ridiculous amount of fun singing the old songs, theme music and even jingles from the Golden Age of radio and TV. We don't always remember the lyrics, but that's what whistling is for.

Films are communal memories, shared dreams and touchstones for understanding various eras and societies. Watch them together.

You’ll find that some pictures are worth much more than a thousand words, and will open up deep treasure chests of memories.

Here are Five Basic Steps for making your loved one’s life memorable:

  1. Take oral histories, with video if desired.
  2. Encourage writing of memoirs.
  3. Break out the scrapbooks and photo albums.
  4. Sing, whistle or hum the old songs. Ddancing is optional but foot-tapping is required.
  5. Ask questions about anything and everything; seniors are expert witnesses to life, and cross examination knows no bounds.

All of this may be obvious to you, and perhaps you are already doing many of these. My point is to encourage this activity; it costs nothing, yet the results are priceless.

Some of my relatives shared dramatic bits of history. My grandfather told me of watching Halley's Comet in 1910. My aunt and uncle had their Hawaiian honeymoon rudely interrupted on December 7, 1941. My mother speaks about seeing the Hindenburg disaster unfold. But the prosaic, everyday memories are more valuable in a sense, for that is where life is lived, values formed, and wisdom hard-won. Sharing this with her sons and grandchildren allows Mom to reflect and connect with the past, and put her stamp on the future.

This can be done wherever you are, whether your beloved senior is still at home or in a senior living community. It is a moveable feast.

As James Taylor sang, "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time." You can't do better than help seniors savor their passage, and in doing so, pass along some joy into the future.

And if this all leads to researching your family tree, which it probably will, here are some resources that may help you:

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Written by Mark L. Chapman