Superior Public Library was preparing to launch a new collection of memory kits when the COVID-19 health emergency began.

“We’ve been wanting to put them together since last year,” said Chelsea Thompson, information and assistance specialist with the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Douglas County, the agency that assembled the kits.

Filled with everyday items meant to spark memories in people struggling with dementia, the kits are tailored based on different themes — fishing, cooking, babies, birthdays. The Duluth Public Library has similar kits.

The cooking kit, for example, includes measuring cups, a rolling pin, a cake decorating book, spices to smell and a list of questions to ask: Who taught you to bake? What's your favorite recipe?

Each includes an interactive activity like a puzzle or bingo game, music CD and books with colorful illustrations created for people with memory loss.

Like old photo albums, songs and magazines, the items can bring memories to the surface, Thompson said.

“A lot of families don’t know how to communicate, they don’t know how to connect with that person anymore,” she said. “This is a tool to connect with that person again and to spark that conversation.”

Memory loss and dementia are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. Nationwide, more than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer's, including an estimated 120,000 people age 65 and older in Wisconsin. The disease was the sixth leading cause of death in Wisconsin in 2017 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the Alzheimer's Association.

Finding conversation bridges and memory prompts can help as families deal with the disease.

“Sometimes it may be hard, but keep trying,” Thompson said.

What works one day may not work the next, she said, but take advantage of those little moments, especially during this time of social distancing.

Even if your loved one doesn’t have dementia, sitting down to glean their memories can be a fun pastime.

“We can always learn new things from the older generation," Thompson said.

The memory kits will not be available until current emergency health restrictions are lifted, but people can assemble their own at home. Thompson encouraged caregivers to focus on something that is meaningful to their loved one.

If they are passionate about Christmas, things like decorations, stockings or fresh-baked holiday cookies might spark a conversation.

If they worked on boats on Lake Superior, find a boat model, some tools or a book on boats to share.

A gardening kit might include a baggie of dirt to sift through, gardening tools or gloves.

A baby kit might include baby clothing to fold.

Thompson recommended people tap into different senses — smell, touch, sound, taste.

“It’s surprising what they do remember about that kind of stuff, what’s still there, what’s stored way in the back,” she said.

She encouraged people to be ready with a few follow-up questions to draw their loved one out without quizzing them about whether they remember names and dates. It’s important to meet them where they’re at and keep reaching for connections, she said.

“The emotions last longer than the memories do,” Thompson said.

Care for caregivers