UNI students get Alzheimer's patients talking

Michelle Remold, University of Northern Iowa senior majoring in gerontology: social sciences, embraces the opportunity to help others. She spent last summer helping Alzheimer's patients share special memories and stimulate discussion with the help of a "memory trunk." And now, she's brought the memory trunk and her enthusiasm to the Cedar Valley.

Remold, a native of Faribault, Minn., interned at the Faribault Area Senior Center during the summer of 2011. It's there where she implemented the memory trunk program and had the opportunity to work with Alzheimer's patients.

Memory trunk program

Remold introduces her memory trunk program to a 

group of Alzheimer's patients.

"I've been around Alzheimer's my entire life," said Remold. "My grandfather had Alzheimer's during my childhood. It's a disease that doesn't intimidate me."

Alzheimer's is a form of dementia that gradually gets worse over time. It affects memory, thinking and behavior. To stimulate memories and discussion among the group, Remold developed two themed "trunks" – a picnic and farm trunk. Each trunk included items that related to the theme.

"I would pass around the items in the trunk and ask what they thought we were going to talk about today," said Remold.  "They loved answering questions and discussions were started, but the items usually didn't make it all the way around the circle, people lost interest and by the time another item started going around, they forgot what we were talking about."

Remold adjusted the program by bringing out the memory trunk as an ice breaker, then letting the group talk about whatever they felt like.

After finishing her internship, Remold returned to UNI for the fall 2011 semester. She wanted to continue the memory trunk program in the Cedar Valley, so she enlisted the help of some fellow classmates and Elaine Eshbaugh, UNI associate professor of gerontology.

"Because of the graying of the Baby Boom generation, opportunities with older adults are growing," said Eshbaugh. "As our population ages, there will be a need for more programs like this to increase the quality of life among older adults."

Area nursing homes, assisted living facilities and adult day care centers jumped at the chance to work with the memory trunk program. Now, Remold and other UNI students visit with groups of Alzheimer's patients a couple times a month. They have developed additional trunks with an array of themes, and have even implemented games.

"The reaction from the residential living and adult day care community has been overwhelmingly positive," said Eshbaugh. "It's very rewarding for me when nursing home administrators and activity directors have great things to say about students in my program and the impact they are making in older adults' lives."

"Being a part of this program is fun and rewarding," said Erin Evans, a junior majoring in psychology. "It gives us a way to communicate with people that have Alzheimer's."

When Remold graduates, she hopes that others will be interested in the memory trunk program enough to keep it going for the long run.

"And who knows, this program, in some capacity, might come back to me in the future," said Remold.