A Harvest Update – The Fruits of our Labors in Memory Care

As I trudge through the brittle, brightly colored leaves in our small town I am often transported to my college years. Though Ligonier is much quieter than the city university I attended, the sounds of crunching leaves, the feel of the rain and wind, and the smell of Autumn are the same. This sensory experience is a universal human one. ‘Time-travel’ is possible through sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and physical touch we experience. Our miraculous brains pull the memories of the past to the present, and one sensory memory can bridge to another. At times, it feels as if we are ‘back there’ and so many things come to mind!                     

It’s so important to remember this when caring for a person living with dementia. It can help us identify the ‘why’s behind the seemingly unexplainable behavior we see. Sometimes looking at our own sensory experiences can help us figure out what is triggering a person to behave a certain way. If we can capture the sensory experiences that provoke pleasant times, we can use that information to help calm someone when they appear to be distressed.

A Little Experiment

Let me give you an example by asking you to play along with me. Let’s just consider one sense – smell. Think of what scents make you feel comfortable and at peace – like all is good in the world. Freshly baked bread? Coffee? Your favorite perfume? The spicy scent of pipe smoke? Your father’s aftershave? Clothes fresh from the line? Everyone has different preferences. Our goal as a care partner should be to find those scents that our loved one enjoys and use them to help calm them when upset. Is it coffee? Offer coffee. Or tea? Or perfume? 

Right now, the sights and scents of fall are taking me back. Sometimes making me feel melancholy, sometimes joyful. One of the reasons we garden in memory care is to help provoke memories and feelings from the past by exposing people to the sensory experiences of tending to plants. 

Growing Memories

For some, this time outside brings up memories of growing up on a farm, or of helping a loved grandmother, or of working hard to provide for their own family. 

For others, it is a newer experience. They may not have had the opportunity to dig in the dirt, but by offering them some time working with others, improving the area, growing something to eat, is a learning experience – meaningful and fun. 

 This year those in memory care had the opportunity to plant some seeds and seedlings. They did winter sowing, a new concept for them. And, we reaped our harvest! Tomatoes, cucumbers, and green peppers were gathered and eaten. We even grew ‘alien babies,’ as a staff member fondly dubbed the bird house gourds. (We hope to turn them into birdhouses in the spring!) Watermelon and cantaloup were started from seeds, but they didn’t ripen in time for the first frost. 

These experiences brought back stories and memories. Something as simple as a vine ripened tomato sparked discussions of canning and preserving, of aprons and hanging clothes out on the line. The discussions sparked memories of times past with loved ones who are no longer here – fond memories of their parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters. 

I would encourage you to take your loved one outside to enjoy the season. The leaves are gone now, but the smell of woodburning stoves, the warmth of the sun, and the barren hillsides may transport both of you to the past. Ask them how they feel, what they are thinking, what memories they may want to share. Who are they thinking about?  Treasure those stories and feelings. They are part of your loved one’s identity and, once shared, they are part of you. 

They are the fruits of our labor – in memory care.

We would like to extend a special word of thanks to Weeders and Seeders club members Dr. Wilma Light, Debbie Christopher, and Patricia Schildcamp for teaching us how to do the winter sowing project. And to Mike Burke and Val Cook for donating bulbs, plants, and soil to our garden! Your generosity is greatly appreciated!

Our ‘alien babies,’ aka Bird House Gourds.
Our ‘alien babies,’ aka Bird House Gourds.

This article was written by Letitia Berkey, Bethlen Communities Dementia Education Partner, BA, Certified Nurse Aide, Certified Dementia Practitioner, Certified Alzheimer’s Disease Dementia Care Trainer, Certified Dementia Care Manager, Certified Dementia Support Group Facilitator.  

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.