Emotional Memory

It was not talked about, I never saw the program or ticket, but I knew. I could remember.

When I was little my parents took me to see a local theatre production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s, Cinderella. I was too little to remember anything that happened, from where we sat in the theatre, to which theatre we were in, to what dress I wore, yet I remember. These memories are not from seeing the program, or photographs from the day, or having conversations about it with my parents. There was something special about that experience that tapped into my emotional memory, pulling me in and allowing me to become apart of its narrative, or for it to become apart of mine. The power of storytelling, sound, sight, smell, touch, and creativity all were engaged during that experience, that has allowed me, almost 30 years later to remember this live theatre experience. I think it is why, when asked about my “start” in theatre, in aging, in therapeutics, I respond with this answer, speaking to that time when my parents took me to see something that tapped into my emotional memory, my creativity, my imagination. This experience pulled out of me an emotional reaction, giving something that should have been forgotten, life. 

What is it about some elements of our life that we remember so vividly, so purely, so warmly without the aid of family stories, photographs, or other prompts that enriches our lives? This is it that allows each one of us to have experiences where are emotions run with such strength that it can almost outpace dementia? This is sort of a messy question, but truly, do we understand the full power of emotional memory? Do we know how we can use emotional memory to help someone living with dementia, live fully alive?

Early on in my work with dementia, I recognized the power emotional memory could hold, long before I knew anything about its research and support, the instinct and the results I saw were more than enough. As I worked to become relational with others in a way that would not require them to remember my name, title, the reason for being with them, I found ways to help them tap into that part of there lives, and frequently we found a common connection, a place of beauty, a place of warmth. The emotional memory, and engaging the senses, are, for me, the two pillars of successfully working with those living with dementia. Filled out with creativity, imagination, and seeing the person for all they have and can continue to be and become, these two pillars are powerful! I saw how when we created something new, together, even if it was a reflection on something we both loved, a bond was formed and even on the bad days when one would not remember me, I would bring up our shared connection and suddenly I was no longer someone to fear, to fight with, to be alarmed by, but someone to smile with, to hold hands with, to spend a moment with as we move to the next part of the day. In a small way, I was recreating that theatre experience for us, by creating something that didn’t require logical or linear thinking. I normally fight for logical and critical thinking, but this is an area where the emotions are the shining star. 

There is a great emphasis on improv and dementia right now. Programs are popping up all over the country and beyond. It is used both as a teaching tool for care partners, but also as programming in Memory Cafés, Life Enrichment calendars, and in partnership with community organizations. Last summer I wrote about these programs and my opinion about them remains strong. As we look for tools to help us understand emotional memory on a very simple level, engaging in improv workshops for those living with dementia shows us what each person can do, can remember, and can engage with and in. It always amazes me how someone can transition from not remembering much about their life, to telling me the full story of their college career, their parents, their 40th wedding anniversary, simply and clearly, by allowing the creativity and movement of play bring out stories that cause you to forget about dementia. These stories are not always joyful however, the stories of war vets often come out and haunt you as you move through the workshop and head home. It shows us where we are lacking in care for those living with dementia who are also veterans.

Early on in my work with dementia, I recognized the power emotional memory could hold, long before I knew anything about its research and support, the instinct and the results I saw were more than enough. As I worked to become relational with others in a way that would not require them to remember my name, title, the reason for being with them, I found ways to help them tap into that part of there lives, and frequently we found a common connection, a place of beauty, a place of warmth. The emotional memory, and engaging the senses, are, for me, the two pillars of successfully working with those living with dementia. Filled out with creativity, imagination, and seeing the person for all they have and can continue to be and become, these two pillars are powerful! I saw how when we created something new, together, even if it was a reflection on something we both loved, a bond was formed and even on the bad days when one would not remember me, I would bring up our shared connection and suddenly I was no longer someone to fear, to fight with, to be alarmed by, but someone to smile with, to hold hands with, to spend a moment with as we move to the next part of the day. In a small way, I was recreating that theatre experience for us, by creating something that didn’t require logical or linear thinking. I normally fight for logical and critical thinking, but this is an area where the emotions are the shining star. 

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