During class, we laughed along with Lucy and Ethel, sang along with Elvis, and recalled the drive-in movie theaters and snack shops where those pesky teenagers gathered with their friends. We recently led a lifelong learning course about the 1950s for a community-based program for persons living with dementia.

looking at photo album with parents

As the family members arrived at the end of the session to gather their loved ones, one participant, when asked about the class, remarked, “I don’t remember what it was about, but I sure do feel good.” Later that evening, I received an email from the participant’s adult daughter, who told me that while her mother couldn’t remember the class’s topic, all she could talk about was the 1950s. She wrote that it was obvious that her mother believed the class was about her life.

The email went on to explain that when they returned home, they had spent the afternoon talking and laughing about their lives in the 1950s! Her mother wanted to look at old family photo albums, and they spent hours on the phone calling her mother’s sisters and brothers and grown adult children, laughing about the funny moments in their lives.

Her adult daughter also told me that she had “no idea all of that information was still retrievable.” She said that she learned more about her mother that afternoon than she had in 60 years and that the family decided to keep the enthusiasm and energy going. The family decided to create “Hannah’s 1950s Memory Book” and put photos and shared memories in a single place, a special place that tells the story of her life.

The concept of learning for persons living with dementia is not about memorizing facts and figures or even remembering the topic. It is about joy. It is about celebrating a life well-lived.

What are the three gifts of learning for persons living with dementia? It’s simple and what every person wants: to feel valued, loved, and connected every day.