Dad was always a pretty quiet guy. Mom was the one who tended to keep a conversation flowing. Still, there were times when dad would get on a roll and tell funny stories from work or from his family. Now that he has Alzheimer’s disease, his conversations tend to be very short. I have to really work at it to get him talking.
Since he is living in assisted living near me, I sometimes try to bring photos and other memorabilia with me when I visit dad. This helps get a conversation going and often I will learn about people and events I hadn’t heard about before.
I wrote before in “Making Memory Books for People with Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia” about how I made memory books for mom and dad. Today I want to talk more about finding and preserving the pictures your family took in the past, and especially in the long-ago past. You can then use these photos and stories to help a parent or family member with dementia.
First I want to stress the importance of finding family photos and identifying the people who are in them. If mom and dad are still alive and able to remember, ask them to show you the old family albums and boxes of photos. Ask them especially to identify the people in the oldest photos and the ones that you don’t recognize. Write down the stories about the events in the pictures as well. Ask mom and dad to tell you more about the people who you don’t recognize. Later that information might be used to help your parents remember their own history.
Use a photo safe pen like a “Micron Pigma” pen to write on the back of the photo. There are many expert descriptions on how to preserve photos on the web. For more information, I suggest you do an online search for “archival photo preservation” or something similar. You can also write information on a separate piece of paper and keep it with your photo.
No matter how you do it, do keep a record of who the people are that are found in your family photos. Otherwise when mom and dad are gone you will be left with albums or boxes full of pictures of unidentified people.
Most people at some time or other used the so-called “magnetic” photo albums which were not magnetic at all. They had glue in them that made the photos stick to the pages. If you waited years to try to remove the photos, you might not be able to get them out at all.
In the 1990’s it dawned on me that I wanted to preserve all my old pictures in archival albums and to remove them from the magnetic albums when they had been used. In some cases it was almost impossible to remove the pictures. I learned to use dental floss to try to work the pictures out. I used knives and razor blades and anything I could think of to remove the pictures. I then obtained archival pages to slip the old pictures into.
Over many years I removed all my pictures from those awful albums and placed them all into archival pages. When I was able to obtain a scanner, I began to scan the photos that had the most sentimental value to me. Over time I scanned hundreds of photos.
When mom passed away, I brought home all the albums that she had both in the mobile home and also in their permanent home in the north. Many of those photos were also in the “magnetic” albums and I spent quite a bit of time removing them. I sorted the photos by family and time period and put them into photo storage boxes for the time being. I also scanned many of them, but I have a lot more left to scan.
As I expected, there were a lot of people I didn’t know though mom had given me many old family pictures in the past and identified the people for me. Still mom had more pictures that had belonged to other family members. As the last survivors from both their families, mom and dad had inherited many family pictures. I brought some of the unidentified pictures with me when I visited dad at his assisted living facility and over time asked him to help me identify the people. Luckily, even with his Alzheimer’s disease and inability to remember recent events, he still was able to identify many of the people in the old pictures from 50 years ago, etc.
Others I scanned and put up on Facebook. I asked my siblings and cousins to help me identify the people in the pictures. I still have a few people I can’t identify, but for the most part I have been able to identify the vast majority of the people in the photographs.
I have written before about how I made books online at Shutterfly and other photographic websites. (I also used the Kodak Gallery in the past, but at this time Kodak is in bankruptcy and the Kodak Gallery will be closing down.) Using this method, I can share scanned precious family photos with the rest of my family and also make copies for dad. This helps me to preserve the stories that go with the pictures and to tell these family history stories to my children and grandchildren as well as to remind dad.
Once you start scanning family photos, you might want to ask relatives for pictures that you don’t have of great-grandparents, etc. You can probably copy those photos right in their homes either on a photo scanner or with a digital camera. There are also portable digital scanners that are sold but I have never used one. If you share digital copies of your pictures, your family members may be more willing to share their photos with you.
Once my older relatives realized I was interested in preserving the family photos, they began mailing me precious family photos that had been kept in closets for many years. I have also received precious family papers that I was not expecting. For your family history, and to help your parent with dementia stay in touch with the past, I urge you to find and identify all your family pictures.