Because of the my mother\’s dementia, I\’m often asked by people who are concerned about “intellectual pauses” of their loved one (or their own) if there\’s anything they can do to remember more, longer, and make their memories easier to access.

Please know that I\’m not a “brain specialist”. Nothing written here should imply a diagnosis or a way to prevent Alzheimers or any of the dozen or so other types of dementia. However, based on information I\’ve learned through research, personal observation and experience, I say Yes!

Before I can tell you how to recall memories more easily, however, let me first tell you how we make memories.

HOW WE MAKE MEMORIES

The brain is an incredibly complex organ composed of billions & billions of microscopic neurons, or brain cells. All the physical and mental tasks we perform (walking, singing, tying your shoes, and thousands of other tasks) are carried out when these cells communicate with each other. This communication is accomplished by a chemical manufactured inside the cell that jumps the tiny gap between the cells, called the synapse. The chemical connection (think of a microscopic hair) creates a memory.

Memories are made through our five senses. Every time we hear, see, taste, smell, and touch, we\’re making a “memory connection.” In addition, the brain actually creates a new memory connection for every sensory experience. If you say 1 word 10 times – you\’ve actually made 10 connections for that word. You probably have millions of connections for your name.

Our earliest memories are created through the sense of touch, which has 2 parts. The first is tactile; the way something feels (a caress, the texture of a blanket – or a hot stove). The second is kinesthetic, sometimes called “muscle memory.” We make kinesthetic memories the same way you get to Carnegie Hall . . . practice, practice, practice! It\’s how pianists play without looking at the keys, how dancers remember routines, and how we remember how to tie our shoes.

Sight is our strongest sense for short term memory. In fact, 73% of our short term memory is through what we see.

Hearing, on the other hand, is the least reliable of the senses. We may have great memories for music or the sound of someone\’s voice but most of what we hear are abstract “facts” such as names and numbers which lack an emotional context.

If you\’ve ever tasted something and asked yourself what\’s missing, it\’s because of a taste memory. A few years ago, some restaurants started featuring “comfort” food (such as meat loaf and macaroni & cheese). It sounded like a good idea but it didn\’t work because the food didn\’t match the memory of the way “Mom used to make it.”

While sight is the strongest sense for short term memory, the sense of smell is the strongest and most vivid for long-term memories. If you\’ve ever smelled something and had memories you hadn\’t thought of in years come flooding back – thank your sense of smell.

And, each of the senses makes its own connection even for the same experience! When you see a rose and stop to smell it, you\’ve doubled your memory of it!

Researchers also believe that our brain processes and stores memories of emotion differently from the way it stores memories of fact and that we remember emotional memories far longer than fact memories. The memories of Thanksgiving dinners, lullabies your mother sang to you, your wedding, your child\’s first words, the first time you successfully rode your bike without training wheels, your old boyfriend\’s aftershave, your first kiss, flowers on Valentines Day are all made stronger because of the combination of the senses plus the emotional connection.

HOW WE RECALL MEMORIES

We make memories through our senses and it\’s through those same senses that we recall or “trigger” these memories. Dementia – regardless of the cause – blocks the connection, preventing one cell from communicating with another, the way an accident blocks traffic on a highway. The more connections you\’ve made for an experience, the more alternate routes you\’ll have to recall or trigger that memory.

Even when my mother\’s dementia was very advanced, she can still remember dozens of old songs when the music triggers her memory. My great grandmother died when I was five years old but to this day, whenever I smell lilacs, I have vivid memories of her and the lilac sachets in her lingerie drawer. If I can\’t remember a phone number, I place my fingers on a phone key pad and let my fingers “remember” for me. The smell of the sea air, the sound of the wind, the taste of your mother\’s meatloaf, the sight of a sunrise, the feel of a baby\’s skin are all triggers we created through our emotional and sensory experiences.

In addition, every time we think, write, and/or talk about an experience, we make even more memories – and more triggers by which to recall them.

Therefore, when doing routine tasks, challenge yourself (or your loved one) to be aware of all of your senses like the taste, feel, smell, and sound of brushing your teeth. Consciously add additional senses to your experiences. For example, revel in the taste, smell, look, and feel of eating something delicious and when you turn on some music, get up and boogie!

And when you – or a loved one with dementia – needs a little help remembering more easily, use the five senses to trigger the memories. Here are a few examples:

Sight

  • Color code and/or put complete outfits together
  • When needing to concentrate, sit/face away from activity

Smell

  • Use aroma to stimulate appetite (coffee, bread, herbs/spices)
  • Be careful of cleaning smells on utensils and in the room. They can really put someone “off their feed.”

Taste

  • Cook food “like mother used to make.” It improves the appetite.
  • Some meds can make food taste metallic (or bitter) so take meds at the end of meal

Sound

  • Use clocks with sounds/chimes (such as cuckoo, grandfather, bird)
  • Minimize noise distractions – they can cause confusion and agitation

Touch (feel + kinesthetic)

  • Use clothes, blankets, slippers, etc that are soft to the touch
  • Don\’t move their stuff when visit. (You may not like where things are but that\’s often the way someone with dementia remembers)

Making memories is fun and easy. Recalling them can be a little more difficult but with some planning and creativity, you and your loved one can remember more longer, and recall them more easily.

© Copyright AgeWiseLiving™ 2009 You can find information about how to talk with your aging loved ones in “The Ultimate Caregiver\’s Success System by going to www.AgeWiseLiving.com. While there, sign up for Barbara\’s free monthly newsletter. You can also contact Barbara by calling toll-free (877) AGE-WISE. Barbara E. Friesner is the country\’s leading Generational Coach and expert on issues affecting seniors and their families. She is an adjunct professor at Cornell University and host of Age Wise Living radio show on VoiceAmerica.com.

Barbara Friesner is the country's leading Generational Coach and an expert on issues affecting Seniors and their families. She has been interviewed for Advising Boomers magazine, featured on NY1 TV's Focus on Seniors and Coping with Caregiving on wsRadio. She has also been quoted in newspapers and magazines across the country and her articles have been published in the CAPSule, the Children of Aging Parent's newsletter.