Understanding Memory

The memory problems associated with living with dementia are far more complex than just simply forgetting everything. In this article, we explain how this can affect people, and the difference between remembering events and emotions.

Understanding the complexities of memory loss can be puzzling. A great starting point is the Bookcase Analogy. It's explained really well in this video - and you can read the transcript of the video here.

Essentially, it shows our memories as books on a bookcase, with our life's memories in ascending chronological order from childhood at the bottom to our most recent memories at the top.

When we get dementia, this bookcase, which is a little rickety anyway due to general old age, becomes even less sturdy. It rocks and sways around, and the books at the top, those recent memories, come tumbling down.

The books at the bottom of the bookcase are obviously safer and we lose far less of those. But still, our memories start to go and the more recent they are, the more of them we lose. Using this analogy you can easily see how dementia affects our short-term memory.

We do, however, have another bookcase. A feelings and emotions bookcase. This contains all our feelings and emotions from our lives, stored in the same order as our memories. This bookcase however is strong and sturdy, made of oak. It hardly moves and we lose very few of our emotional responses and feelings about events.

How this translates in real life is like this:

Imagine you go out for afternoon tea with your adult granddaughter. You have a lovely time, laugh and share cake and it is a happy day. Once you return home, the memory of that event goes on the top shelf of the first bookcase, and the feelings from that event go on the top shelf of the other bookcase. Quite quickly, the first bookcase shakes about and the memory of the afternoon tea falls out, gone forever. But on the second bookcase, the feelings remain on the top shelf, safe and secure, not moving. The afternoon's events are forgotten, but the happy feeling of familiarity, laughter and love remains.

This is so, so important to remember. People living with dementia will not remember what you said or did, but they will remember how you made them feel. This is why encouraging family members to keep spending time with a loved one, focusing on warmth, love and kindness, is so incredibly important.

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