How To Design Compelling “Memory Boxes”

Many dementia-friendly communities offer frames or “shadowboxes” on the wall outside of residents’ rooms. These shadowboxes are customizable and meant to be unique to each resident.

Unfortunately, many communities stuff their residents’ shadowboxes full of knick-knacks and call it a day. While you are absolutely able to put knick-knacks and trinkets in your loved one’s shadowbox, I cannot guarantee it will help your loved one find their room.

For me, the purpose of the shadowbox is three-fold:

  • It helps a resident find their own room
  • It helps the staff get to know the resident as a person
  • It is a great conversation starter for the resident and others who walk by

My favorite thing to do with an empty shadowbox is something very simple. I like to get an image of the resident from when they were younger, preferably in their 20s or 30s, and enlarge the photo. Many people with dementia do not recognize themselves as older adults. They think of themselves as being much younger, so they will often recognize younger photos of themselves. This, in turn, helps these residents find their rooms in a large hallway.

I had one resident, Pete, who thought of himself as an 22-year-old man. When we talked about his photo, he noted that it was taken “only a couple of years ago.” This made me smile. He spoke of his time in the military (this photo was him in his military uniform) very proudly.

I have also had residents who know that they are older, but still like to see photos of themselves as young adults. I had one resident in particular, Marie, who loved telling people passing by about her photo. “Oh, yes, I just threw my hair together that day,” she’d say, nodding to the glamorous photo. “I was such a mess!” Marie looked like a model from a magazine.

Staff members connect with these photos more-so than trinkets in a resident’s shadowbox. I have watched staff members tear up seeing a favorite resident in their younger days. “This photo was taken when she was my age,” one caregiver said quietly, wiping a tear from her eye.

While I think adding a couple items to the shadowbox is great, I believe that the main focus should be a residents’ photo.

Amanda: I agree with Rachael’s idea of a large photo being the focus. I often see memory boxes filled with lots of tiny items, and these are hard for residents to immediately recognize. Also, keeping it simple is so important. Starting with the large image of the resident in their younger days, add some smaller items that relate to things the resident likes or that are significant to them. For example, something with the logo of the resident’s favorite sports team, or a favorite cross stitch could be great items to┬áinclude. Include enough so the box doesn’t look empty, but not so much that it is cluttered.