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Project: Thanks for the Memory


Canadian scientists have found that multimedia biographies – videos of personal photos, music and other memories – can boost quality of life for persons with cognitive impairments.

Researchers recruited 12 patients and 12 family members from a large urban geriatric care institution. Six of the individuals had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and six with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The patients ranged in age from 60 to 95.

The research team was led by Dr. Thecla Damianakis of the school of social work at the University of Windsor (Ontario). The study findings were reported in The Gerontologist, (Vol. 50, No. 1, 2010).

The project involved two phases:


Patients and family members worked together to select multimedia – photos, music and other materials – that best captured the patients’ life story.
Chosen items reflected different periods in the patient’s life: childhood, youth, education, career, middle age and life today. Special interests and accomplishments were also highlighted.
The work was carried out in patients’ homes to reduce distractions.
Final versions of the biographies could be played on a DVD player connected to the patient’s home television.
Members of research team provided technological assistance during the production phase.
Several MCI patients were able to make their own selections and narrate their own stories. In contrast, AD patients required assistance from at least one family member.


Researchers showed the completed biographies to patients and filmed their reactions.
They conducted follow-up interviews with patients and family caregivers at three and six months intervals.
During each interval, patients and family caregivers were instructed to view the DVD at least weekly, and make notes as to patients’ responses following each viewing.

Power of multimedia biography

The new research found the multimedia biography improved quality of life for patients and their families in at least four ways:

1. It stimulated patients’ memories

Viewing the biographies had an effect on the patients’ memory.

As one MCI patient noted, “It’s easy to have memories when you have a movie to back it.”

Another patient said:

Once I see it, I remember everything, of course. Everything was just right. It was a good job. It’s a beautiful way to show the past because this is a lifetime. [These] pictures that were made since I was six, seven, eight months old, and now I’m 82.

The researchers found some patients needed to view videos more than once: “It was the repeat viewings that particularly were helpful, I’ve seen it quite a few times now . . . If I’d only seen it once or twice I probably wouldn’t remember as much of it,” one AD patient said.

According to the study, watching the videos also triggered changes in patients’ moods such as pleasure, sadness and satisfaction.

For example, one AD patient was tickled to see herself on the screen. “I can’t believe this is on,” she said.

Another patient experienced feelings of sadness after viewing the images of deceased friends and family members.

He said:

These are all people that I cared about, and they are no longer in existence . . . even if there’s some laughs in the movie, I’m left with a little feeling of loss, but it’s balanced to some extent by having a chance to see them again.

2. It boosted family morale

The patients’ families responded very favourably to the project, the researchers reported.

“I heard stories from Mom that I haven’t heard before,” the son of one AD patient said.

The daughter of another patient noted:

You know there is always talk about what you do with a parent with dementia . . . [when] conversation becomes harder and harder . . . so watching something like this helped us cope a lot . . . it was a wonderful adjunct to our caregiving.

Family members also used the DVDs to brighten up a day and boost the quality of a family visit.

3. It improved relationships with nursing staff

Findings also showed multimedia biographies had a positive affect on nursing staff, helping caregivers to better understand and appreciate their patients.

Describing caregivers’ reaction to the video about her mother, one daughter said:

Well, they love it. When they watch it they love it. They think it’s just great, and it helps them remember that she was not always this way, and yes it’s true that she is this way, and this is who they are dealing with today, but there was another person.

This daughter also suggested the biographies be featured during entertainment night at the home, affording all the residents the opportunity to enjoy them.

4. It preserved the family legacy

Finally, the biographies boosted communication between the generations.

For example, families rushed to share the videos with grandchildren. “We’ve given copies to all the grandchildren,” the daughter of one AD patient said. “My grandchildren will learn a lot about who my mother was.”

Significantly, the idea of legacy also struck a chord with patients. As one 84-year-old man remarked: “Not everybody has all the pictures . . . I was lucky to save all that . . . and to show it to my family and it’s going to stay with them . . . after I’m gone.”

Making a difference

Despite the small number of patients, Damianakis and her team stressed the potential of multimedia biographies to make a profound difference in the lives of persons with cognitive impairments.