Read dementia patients their life stories, and watch what happens

Jay Newton-Small, co-founder of Memory Well, cradles a photograph of herself as a toddler with her dad, Graham Newton-Small, at her home in the District on Dec. 13. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The Dec. 18 Metro article “Seeing behind dementia’s veil,” which told the story of a journalist who writes profiles of people with Alzheimer’s disease, mirrored what my family did for my father, Sam, who died on Nov. 2 of complications of Alzheimer’s.

Years ago, before we knew my father’s memory would disappear, my husband, a journalist, interviewed my father and wrote his life story. I added photographs and produced an informal booklet. After my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and entered an assisted-living memory care facility in Las Vegas, I called him every day and read him parts of his story, sometimes staying on the phone for half an hour. On his good days, he would remember and add to the story.

My father particularly enjoyed his boyhood memories of growing up in an Italian neighborhood in St. Louis and smelling the aromas of spaghetti sauce and meatballs cooking on Sundays, hearing the church bells ring at St. Liborius Church and walking to get his father a 10-cent bucket of beer. The caregivers saw I could calm my father with the words my husband had written. My father would start the phone call standing up, and the caregivers would bring him a chair while he enjoyed the phone call. I cherish the memory of our phone calls. They allowed me to relate to my father in a way that was meaningful for both of us.

About three weeks before he died, I thanked him for everything he had done for me. “Dad, thank you for working hard to put food on the table.” He responded that it wasn’t always easy. Pretty soon after that, he stopped talking altogether, but I kept reading his life story to him while the caregivers held the telephone to his ear. Thank you for acknowledging how important writing these stories is.

Donna Weiss, Alexandria

Letters to the Editor

The Washington Post

November 2019

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