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Memory Boxes As Community Building Tools

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The names vary–memory boxes, shadow boxes, ID boxes–but no matter what you call them, the concept remains the same. These display cases are a part of the built environment intended to help residents who may have memory loss to personalize their room, as well as help them locate it. They can also encourage reminiscence activities, family and friend visitation, and an increased understanding of one another on a personal level. As someone who specializes in designing Senior Living communities, I see a great deal of benefit in this seemingly simple tool.

Two important factors dictate the success of a memory box as a wayfinding aid to help residents find their bedrooms. The first factor is location. Memory boxes should be easily visible in the wayfinding path and typically located on the latch side of the resident room door. This helps reduce confusion and frustration by making the mental recognition as convenient and quick as possible for the resident.

The second factor is how well the content promotes visual cueing of residents triggering memories. For example, a resident with a lifelong passion for baseball filled his memory box with significant baseball related items. He was able to locate his own room from recognizing the items, and in the process, triggered fond memories of summer baseball outings. Residents may also rotate items in the memory box to be appropriate for the season; the summer baseball theme may be replaced by a winter display complete with a snowman and holiday lights.

How Visual Cueing Works

Residents with dementia are unable to form cognitive maps to find their way around a building. However, most residents will generally maintain an understanding of perceptual access. In other words, if they see the destination, they can navigate to it.

The artifacts in a memory box serve as visual cues for a resident if three important guidelines are followed: they are familiar, they are legible, and they are distinct. Visual familiarity triggers memory and recognition. A well-designed and easily located display assures the item is clearly legible and, therefore, easier to understand. Lastly, everyone’s unique life experiences result in distinctive items that residents are more likely to recognize.

A well-designed memory box allows the viewer to visually explore and understand artifacts that are of interest to themselves or the owner of the display. The resident previously mentioned who is a baseball fan enjoyed holding and sharing his childhood baseball glove. The touch, smell and sounds from the baseball glove triggered his own memories and, when shared with others, provided an opportunity to get to know one another and even bond over common interests.

Wayfinding is promoted with unique, individually significant artifacts that trigger memories and recognition. Reminiscence activities, such as sharing memories triggered by the artifacts, are encouraged because the items hold personal significance making residents more willing to share stories. The sharing of stories connects us all, moving a little closer to each other and encouraging a communal atmosphere, and reducing anxiety. If, for example, every memory box is filled with identical Hummel figurines, the intent is lost. There’s no sense of individualization.

Feeling comfortable in your home is important. Residents with dementia may experience agitation surrounded by unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar environment. Memory boxes provide familiar artifacts and allow expression of individuality and reduce stress from disorientation.

When planning a Senior Living community, there are practical reasons to incorporate memory boxes. There are also the intangible benefits that go beyond practicality, reminding us of the uniqueness of each person, and that they are more than their disease. Memory boxes filled with artifacts from a unique life give us a glimpse into what makes us human and helps us bond with each other to build a community.

Senior Living Expert Contributor