As my mother drifted deeper into dementia, her friends started drifting away from her. Her grandchildren felt awkward around her and I sometimes didn’t know how to interact with her.

One summer, my parents and my 10-year-old nephew Jake were visiting me and I wanted an activity we could all do together. Normally, Jake and Mom had a grand time together; but my mother, in her early stages of Alzheimer’s, wasn’t the grandmother Jake was used to. She still hugged him in the same warm way, but she didn’t ask him the same questions. She didn’t warn him to be careful when he played; she didn’t offer to make him chocolate chip cookies. Jake knew his grandmother had something wrong with her but he didn’t know what to do about it. So I decided to create a family project, a simple story scrapbook, complete with photos and a storyline, starring Jake and Nana and my father. 

Since Jake was interested in strength and power, I created a tale where the strongest kid learns about something even more powerful than physical prowess – love.
The HERO Project Helped Our Family Connect
This was a healing project for my family.  Jake and I worked on the storyline, then shared it with my parents. I took photos as they acted out the script.  My mother was going through a stage of being very resistant and she had a good time acting out her frustration. My depressed father actually smiled and laughed during the photo shoot. 

When I had developed the photos, we sat around the table and put the scrapbook together. Mom and Dad enjoyed leafing through magazines for extra sayings and words to spice up the pages. Most of all they enjoyed sitting around, focused on something other than the confusion of Mom’s Alzheimer’s.

We all loved the finished product. Our story scrapbook had a meaningful message and we could share the project with our friends and relatives. It was a way to let people know, “We’re still here and we’re still having fun, despite Mom’s diagnosis of dementia.” Reading this story inspired people to reach out to my parents and me and stay connected. During those years, we looked at this scrapbook often and each time we laughed and smiled.
We did other story scraps –some with our family as a group, other starring individuals. Each time we loved the process and the results. We called this work, The HERO Project, because we were inviting people to have fun and be seen as the heroes they really were.

The HERO Project Helps Connect Memory Care Staff and Residents with Alzheimer’s
We created a HERO Project for Ron’s father Frank when he moved into Assisted Living. We sailed through Frank’s life story, using the theme Lucky Frank; this is a quality that Frank had benefitted from all his life: luck and the ability to appreciate it. 

We shared the finished product with Frank, with the staff, and with our out-of-town family, via email. We used parts of the scrapbook along with other familiar photos, in a memory box outside of Frank’s room. 
When Frank had to move from assisted living into a memory care unit, we used Lucky Frank to introduce Frank to the staff.  In ten action-packed, photo-filled scrapbooked pages, our story let the care team understand what a vibrant, multifaceted and fascinating life Frank led and was leading. The information about his work, hobbies and family gave everyone conversational staring points. When new people joined the care team, we made sure they read Frank’s book. 

The book stayed in Frank’s room and we often used it to jumpstart a visit. Frank enjoyed looking at the book every time. Often we read the book out loud and sometimes he read along. This simple book gave us all, particularly Frank, a lot of pleasure. It helped us celebrate his past and honor him in the present. 
Using The HERO Project to Spice up and Celebrate Daily Life
The HERO Project encourages self-esteem, communication, relationship enrichment, and more. Making the scrapbooks allows families and friends to create a meaningful artistic project with their loved one who has Alzheimer’s. For staff, this is an interesting and playful activity that can involve people with a variety of abilities. For administrators, helping families and residents create such a tangible souvenir increases the value of the facility.  The resulting booklet reminds us that every person is unique and connects us with the amazing heroes all around.

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Deborah Shouse is a writer, speaker, editor, Alzheimer’s advocate and creativity catalyst. Central Recovery Press is going to publish an updated edition of her book Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey, in November.  Originally, Deborah self-published and used the book as a catalyst to raise more than $80,000 for Alzheimer’s programs and research. She will continue donate a portion of her proceeds to Alzheimer’s. Visit her blog at DeborahShouseWrites or on Twitter @DeborahShouse.