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I started a new project at work that I am really excited about.

We purchased 30 shadowboxes (those frames that allow for you to add trinkets, along with photos) for outside our residents’ doors. In the past, I’ve really disliked making shadowboxes. Other companies I’ve worked for have had stipulations about what kinds of things can go in the box. This time, though, it was up to me. 

I began asking residents’ family members to bring in old photos of their residents from when they were in their teens or twenties. As the photos began coming in, I played “guess who” games with my staff. “Guess who this is?” i asked, holding up one photo at a time. It’s fun, but it is also humanizing. Sometimes, in the midst of dealing with difficult dementia-related behaviors, it is easy to forget that our residents have lived full, long lives—that they are people with histories, past loves, and amazing experiences.

Many of my residents do not know that they are older adults. Because they think that they are young, they recognize youthful photos of themselves. It helps them to find their rooms. too.

The staff members love it, too. They squeal with delight over the old photos of their residents. “Look! Mary! Aren’t you beautiful in this picture?” they cry when new photos come in.

One of my residents, Lula, saw her 21-year-old self staring back from her shadowbox.

“Wow!” she yelled with excitement. “I was a KNOCKOUT!”

Below: A photo of my grandparents from their honeymoon. I miss them very much.

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Rachael Wonderlin is an internationally-recognized dementia care expert and consultant. She has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of three published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. Rachael owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting and education company.

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