Digital storytelling helps people with dementia trigger memories

Creating short videos using pictures and music has many benefits for patients with dementia and their families, UAlberta study finds

Laurie Wang - 22 August 2017

For Myrna Caroline Jacques, digital storytelling is her way of fighting Alzheimer's.

"I thought maybe if I do this and use my brain, the disease won't take over as soon. That is my goal," the 77-year-old grandma of five said.

She may be onto something.

A University of Alberta study on digital storytelling and dementia showed digital storytelling was useful for triggering memories and helping people like Jacques share meaningful stories with loved ones.

"As the people I worked with shaped their own stories, they were able to recall new memories. Even after they watched the story with their loved ones, some of the images would uncover more memories from the past," said Elly Park, principal investigator and assistant clinical lecturer in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine's Department of Occupational Therapy.

Park worked with seven participants in Edmonton, each with different stages of dementia. Using the digital storytelling workshop model from Simon Fraser University, Park adapted the program from a group workshop to one-on-one. The sessions took place with the participants in their homes and she would spend time with them building their digital story. Each participant would choose their own pictures, music and words, and record their own voice as the narrator. After the stories were completed, families and loved ones were invited to watch the stories together.

"Sitting down with the participant to work on the five-minute story helped them think of positive memories," Park explained. "As we shared stories, deeply buried memories would surface. One participant was quite surprised saying to me, 'It's amazing how much stuff is in a person's mind and all you need is a trigger to bring it out.' Creating a story with voice, images and music also gave them an emotional legacy piece."

Park said people who have dementia are often scared of losing their ability to communicate. "Another participant told me, 'One of my fears is, I went through dementia with my mother and it gets bad at the end. And that's all the memories I seem to have, is all the bad stuff.' She really appreciated this opportunity to create something positive that her family could have to remember her by."

Park and her team analyzed the participants' interviews about their experiences with this digital storytelling process. The results showed the impact was quite powerful in various ways. The participants thoroughly enjoyed the process of reminiscing and sharing stories, but were also astounded with what was possible when using technology and multimedia to present their stories.

The team found engaging individually with each participant was a critical part of making this process enjoyable.

"Meeting them in their homes kept them in a familiar space which is helpful for triggering memories. As well, they were able to relax and open up more because it was just me working with them, and not a big group," said Park.

Jacques agreed. "I enjoyed Elly, and I think it made me feel stronger. Teaching me some ways to express myself or share myself. I think it has been very enlightening for me. I think digital storytelling is a wonderful thing because I think there can be some help with Alzheimer's and that makes me excited because I think-yeah, that can help the next generation."

Jacques' digital story is about her family and learning about mothering from her mother.

"I even share about my daughter's more rebellious years," she laughed. "But she has grown up to be a great woman. I am proud of her. I am proud of all of my family."

Jacques' husband, two daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren all attended the viewing of her digital story-and they were so proud of her too.

This study was published in International Conference on Human Aspects of IT for the Aged Population in July 2017, in partnership with Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging and AGE-WELL, NCE. For more information on digital storytelling, please contact