In this post, I share what I learnt about creating a life story book with mum. After describing encouraging experiences of some reminiscence activities, I chart six steps to create a life story book.
Remembering married life
I was inspired by the success of a pre-dementia present I’d made to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. One morning it helped mum move from not knowing she’d ever been married, to remembering her life with her beloved husband. We discussed the items in the gift which all allude to significant moments in their marriage from their very first date. “You brought him back to me,” mum said as we dissolved in tears and hugs.
Losing her identity
Another time I was delighted by the transformation in mum’s mood when I got her to help me arrange some photos. Earlier that day she said she didn’t know where she came from and “I don’t know who I am anymore”. It was often in the mornings she seemed to lose huge chunks of her history and with that her sense of identity. It would break my heart to find mum looking for clues in her bedside table shortly after waking.
Zooming in on memories
Many of mum’s photos were arranged randomly in different albums with neither a clear theme nor chronological order. Some of the childhood photos were small, faded and battered. I scanned the pictures to create digital versions, and we sat together and looked at them on a big monitor. Suddenly, we were able to zoom in on details we hadn’t seen before. Looking at the enlarged photos mum became animated and engaged, clearly in touch with her past again. We could finally dispense with the magnifying glass which was becoming a barrier to looking at photos.
Although it was clear how important a life story book would be for mum, throughout the process of compiling it I repeatedly got stuck. It was like a work project hanging over me, categorised as important but not urgent. Somehow it never found its way to the top of my to-do-list.
I focused on the parts of the project I could do with mum, and that she enjoyed. This meant doing the major part of the work on my own, in my (rest) time! I found decisions difficult. Should it be written in the first person? Should it be chronological or themed? How to choose photos when there are so many? Where to start? So, my advice below is from the perspective of a busy carer. I suggest breaking the work down into chunks, and doing a little each day, if possible.
Six steps to creating a life story book
1) Briefly review advice and make decisions
To help answer the tricky questions look at advice from others who are dedicated to life story work. Here’s a few pointers from the Life Story Network about Life Story Work in Lockdown (PDF). Most helpful to me was information and resources from Dementia UK. They have more detail about life story work in a downloadable leaflet (PDF).
Having read some guidance, now it’s time to make decisions. If practical and possible, make important choices with the person who the book is about.
2) Choose a format
Decide on a format for the life story. Will it be a book, a word document, an app, audio or film? Dementia UK gives pros and cons for different formats. Choosing a format early will help you make decisions about lots of other issues. I was keen on a photo book that could travel with mum through her care journey, when I was no longer with her. Created electronically, meant it could always be added to later.
3) Decide on content
To help decide on photos and topics, I used and adapted Dementia UK’s excellent template in Word. You can download it from their leaflet or life story page (links above). Dementia UK’s template includes topics like the person’s food preferences, hobbies and wishes for future care. I thought these were better left in mum’s care plan, so I simply cut these sections out. Duplicating blank sections of the template, I added some themes of my own. I included a page on ‘My faith’ as mum’s religion was central to her life.
I used some of the topics from the template like ‘Happiest Memories’ to spark conversations with mum. Generally mum didn’t talk about herself or her past. So I was delighted when mum happily remembered special places from her childhood. Describing some stepping stones over a river near Ogmore Castle mum said, “It was quite exciting for us as children. We felt like we had discovered it”. I didn’t have photos of these places, so I simply found some pictures online.
4) Start simple
The Dementia UK template layout is basic but don’t let that put you off. Once you have compiled the main content and started using it, you can transfer the content to a book later on if you want to. Using this template helped me get started, and stopped my endless prevarication. Alternatively you could simply select the themes from the template to inform what content to put directly into your photo book (see below).
I printed out the unfinished document for a care home that was caring for mum while I was having a break. Even though the printing quality was poor it was a huge hit. It helped the staff and visitors engage with mum happily. And it proved a good distraction from her increasingly sophisticated escape attempts.
5) Gather, select and scan photos
You can gather and select photos right from the start. Seeing mum’s reactions to the scanned photos helped me decide which photos to use in her book. This is very much the fun part and I was undiscriminating about what I scanned. However, before long it is helpful to have a clear sense of which photos you need, otherwise you may get sucked into an ever-expanding black hole.
Once you have decided on the topics, the choice of photos should be more straightforward. For me this process was iterative. I started with the pictures I knew must be included and created new topics in the template to accommodate them. And when the template suggested great topics I hadn’t thought of, I set about finding pictures to illustrate them. I added text to explain who the people were in relation to mum, and added her quotes alongside pictures of childhood places.
Job done! You don’t need to do anymore, except perhaps update it as new and important memories emerge.
6) Transferring to a book
However, if like me you may want a shiny new book to show for all your hard work. Having make the difficult decisions, it was quite straight forward and fun to transfer the photos and text into a beautifully laid out photo book. With lots of page templates to choose from in easy-to-use software you can accommodate any mix of photos of different shapes and sizes and add text, quite easily. I used BonusPrint which at the time (2019) was the most well-reviewed for ease of use, quality and value. I was delighted with how simple it was. Here is the final online version of the book “June Powell: This is my life.”
The book was a hit with mum
Apart from enjoying the process of creating the book, mum loved the finished product. During mum’s hospital stays and her stay at the last care home, it meant staff could relate to her through pictures and memories.
I can’t wait to see your life stories in whatever format you choose. Do share links in the comments below. And also add any other tips you think might be helpful to others as they embark on this journey.