The power of words offers hope to dementia sufferers

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 7, 2006

Dementia, Alzheimer's disease and brain injury, the focus of our past two columns, continue to dominate discussion around the coffee table of this column. This week: memory and the power of words.

"Our memories are the stuff of life and evidence of our legacy," Cochrane coffee companion and educator Julie Stover said to me the other day. "To lose that into meaningless space is tragic and so preventable, if we would only listen and record."

Julie drew my attention to Bridging-the-Gap, Intergenerational Memoir Writing Programs, a resource she came across in Ontario that, according to its website, affects "youth's attitudes and understanding towards dementia and aging and promotes feelings of self-worth for seniors" (

At the core of the program is a memory box of 150 words "specially selected to spark memories from the past" – words such as "birthdays," "pets," "parties" and "holidays." Although a valuable conversation-starter in general, it has a special place in opening up communication between seniors and young people, the website states.

Julie's praise for the program reminded me of the memory-recovery experience of another of our coffee companions, Leanne Forest, of Edmonton.

Back in October 1992 Leanne, a marketing professional, was a passenger in a car broadsided at an urban intersection. Besides broken bones and a punctured lung, she suffered brain injury that left her in a coma for weeks. When she finally awoke, her memory was seriously out of whack. Of this time Leanne wrote me:

"Some of the results of my severe traumatic closed-head injury were similar to challenges faced by seniors with dementia – confusion, loss of a few friends, isolation, fear, loss of directional awareness, loss of skills, etc."

Her mother, retired senator Jean Forest, to the rescue. To help Leanne regain her earliest recollections, Jean located some of Leanne's childhood mementos – toys, stuffed animals and storybooks – and re-exposed Leanne to them as memory aids. She also kept a detailed journal covering the time that Leanne was in a coma and presented her with it during her recovery. Through the power of words and mementos, Jean not only helped her daughter regain her pre-accident memory; "she gave me back my seven lost weeks," Leanne wrote.

"Once I was home from the hospital and recovering slowly," she said, "I remember my mother asking me to type some of her speeches – speeches concerning things she cared passionately about: politics, education, religion. She instinctively knew that as I regained lost keyboarding skills, I would be drawn into the real world again as I pondered some of the issues she would be addressing."

One of Leanne's early-adulthood mementos she rediscovered during this time was an old hammer her father, retired developer Rocky Forest, had given her once to inspire her to be self-reliant. The proof of the power of mementos and words in her recovery came with the publishing of an article she wrote the year after the accident. "My Father's Hammer" was a tribute to her parents' unfailing faith in her.

This past weekend I shared Leanne's story with Julie. Julie asked whether I had read Nicholas Sparks' 1996 bestselling novel, The Notebook, or seen the movie based on it. I had not. But in view of her contagious enthusiasm, by the end of the day I had not only begun reading the book, but had taken in the movie on DVD, as well.

It's a deeply touching love story as told through a notebook of memories read by an elderly husband to his dementia-stricken sweetheart wife who for the most part doesn't have a clue who he is. Yet, through the power of words and love, she experiences brief moments of awareness that inspire and amaze.

Then, of course, there are words beyond print and sound – the silent words of the tender touch. At a church pancake breakfast I took in Sunday, white-haired Sylvia Wylie sat down with me for a moment and thanked me for including in last week's column the "Alzheimer's Prayer" she had forwarded to me.

Sylvia is all too familiar with relational difficulties associated with Alzheimer's. Her husband, Peter, has suffered from it for 12 years, and has reached the point where he barely recognizes family members any longer. For the past five years he has resided at Cochrane's Bethany Care Centre, where Sylvia visits him almost daily.

Breakfast over, Sylvia leaned toward me and in her typically gentle, warm way, said: "Well, Warren, it's time for me to go over to Bethany again.

"I'm going to hold hands with my sweetie."

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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