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Case of Memories: former nurses with dementia recall their working lives

An RCN project is using replicas of nursing items from the 1940s and 50s to stimulate reminiscence for former nurses and other care home residents.
Memories of nursing

An RCN project is using replicas of nursing items from the 1940s and 50s to stimulate reminiscence for former nurses and other care home residents

Vintage-looking ear syringes, blood pressure monitors and other equipment from the early days of the NHS all feature in a case of memories being used to help people living with dementia.

Launched by the RCN in March, the Case of Memories project brings together replicas of nursing items used in the 1940s and 50s to stimulate people with dementia to recall and share memories.

Nursing memories

Using a process known as facilitated reminiscence, nurses or carers present objects and activities to help people with dementia access their memories. The Case of Memories project is particularly relevant to

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An RCN project is using replicas of nursing items from the 1940s and 50s to stimulate reminiscence for former nurses and other care home residents


The district nurse’s case of more than half a century ago triggers memories for nurses and patients. Picture: Getty

Vintage-looking ear syringes, blood pressure monitors and other equipment from the early days of the NHS all feature in a ‘case of memories’ being used to help people living with dementia. 

Launched by the RCN in March, the Case of Memories project brings together replicas of nursing items used in the 1940s and 50s to stimulate people with dementia to recall and share memories. 

Nursing memories

Using a process known as facilitated reminiscence, nurses or carers present objects and activities to help people with dementia access their memories. The Case of Memories project is particularly relevant to nurses living with dementia, who will have used these items in their working lives. 

Funded by the RCN Foundation, the project was inspired by the RCN dementia pilot scheme SPACE, which is based on five principles of care (see box). This found that many current care home residents experienced nursing during the 1940s and 50s, either as a patient or as a nurse.

SPACE principles of good dementia care

  • Staff who are skilled and have time to care.
  • Partnership working with carers.
  • Assessment and early identification of people living with dementia.
  • Care plans that are person-centred and individualised.
  • Environments that are dementia friendly.

‘We discovered common interests when talking to residents, notably that many were former nurses or had been involved in nursing care during the second world war or just after,’ says RCN lead for older people and dementia care Dawne Garrett. 

Multisensory experience

‘We know that meaningful activity helps orientate people and gives them a sense of well-being, so we started to think about how we could facilitate reminiscence for former nurses who were residents in care homes,’ she says. 

It was decided that a district nurse’s case and its contents would be a good way to deliver a multisensory activity. 

Research for the project included finding out what would normally have been in a district nurse’s case in the 1940s and 50s, and talking to nurses who had worked during this period. 

Replicas

Original equipment from the period would not have been appropriate because of cleaning and infection control issues, says Ms Garrett. Instead, the project team sourced authentic-looking replicas from websites and hospital equipment suppliers.

The RCN then put together a guide explaining what each object was and how it worked. Rubber tubing, bandages and wooden tongue depressors are among the objects included in the case.
 
When a person with dementia handles the objects, a nurse or carer will explain what they were used for, while remaining open to the  person's own stories or interpretations. Evocative smells, such as antiseptic, can also be added to the experience. 

Professional skills

Ms Garrett says the objects hint at how skilled nurses of the time had to be. ‘The equipment was so inflexible and rigid that carrying out interventions required incredible levels of dexterity and skill,’ she says. 

The scheme was trialled at The Hollies Care Centre in Gloucestershire, with staff providing written accounts of how the residents responded. Former nurses talked about how they had used the equipment and how they felt about it; one resident said it took her back to the time when she started her nurse training and when she met her husband.  

The initiative is still in its early stages, but feedback suggests it could have a positive impact. Ms Garrett says there has been a lot of interest from people wanting to borrow the case, which is available free from the RCN’s libraries in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. 

Nursing heritage

Colin Sheeran, the lead project facilitator for the dementia framework team at Four Seasons Health Care, believes the Case of Memories is an excellent idea. ‘I regularly meet former nurses living with dementia in our care homes,’ he says. ‘For many of them, it is clear their memories of work have not been left behind.’

‘Care homes are rich with sights and sounds that will trigger memories and behaviours. Many former nurses identify with care teams and want to be involved in the daily work – I have seen them “supervising” medicines and wanting to help with personal care,’ he adds. 

‘A Case of Memories is a great addition to our resources as it will encourage meaningful interaction and activity, and has the potential to strengthen bonds between nurses and the former nurses that they are caring for.’ 
 
For Ms Garrett, the project is ‘an opportunity to celebrate our nursing heritage and a great reminder for nurses today of how far we have come’.


Kathy Oxtoby is a freelance health writer

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