One Christmas, when my Dad’s Alzheimer’s had progressed towards the final stages, we’d realised that we’d run out of readily available ideas that we thought would interest him.
I’d like to say it was inspiration but was probably 50% desperation that led us to the Curiosity Box Discovery. You see, I still wanted to hand him a present and see his interest and pleasure. I still wanted to connect with him and hadn’t given up trying. So we bought an interesting looking vintage, wooden box, then we filled it with interesting nik-naks. Just things we thought might engage him. Some buttons on some string, a broken watch that still had a winder, a small bell and other small items that would fit in the box.
We wrapped them all up separately and he had a lot of fun unwrapping them, inspecting them, then placing them carefully in the box, before closing the lid. It had been a lovely moment but we didn’t realise that we had discovered something else. As often happened he got bored with the conversation fairly soon, but then he ‘noticed’ the box again. It seemed to be a new arrival for him, he’d forgotten the unwrapping not long before. However, something about the box intrigued him, and after wrestling with some internal decision making he made the decision to open the box and so found all the items within again. He inspected them and tried to find out if they did anything, and if they could be put together in any way. He was engrossed in his exploration and focused entirely on the task. Eventually all of the items were put back into the box and the lid was closed and to our surprise was ready to have some conversation again.
It was a revelation that he made the decision to open the box and investigate, and it was something that was able to be repeated again and again, as long as he could see the box. We found, to our pleasure that if we had the box with us, our visits lasted longer and he was more able to stay in the moment with us. Of course, he didn’t know who we were but I think that he liked us all the same, and I got to spend some quality time with my beloved Dad.
We used to take him out for a coffee at a local hotel when he was living in the care home, and would take the box with us. Sitting it on the table in front of him it would distract him when he became bored with not being able to follow the conversation, and he would open it up for a rummage through. The addition of the box turned what had become a difficult and frustrating outing, with him insisting that he wanted to go home very quickly, into a much more pleasurable event that lasted for a satisfying amount of time for me.
We also found that other people seemed to be using the box, things disappeared but other things arrived. Of course we had no way of knowing the box’s adventures when we weren’t there, but the changes to the contents were testament to them. We were delighted to know that others were also using the box, it seemed a positive thing for Dad and other residents to have something that they could independently access and interact with. Autonomy is something that as an adult we take for granted, but is gradually lost on the dementia journey. We realised that we’d found a way to give a little back, and that both my Dad, and we, benefitted from this.
In designing our Curiosity Box we have tried to engage everything we learnt from this experience and bring together a collection of items that can be investigated and combined in a similar way, and can be used as a focus for conversation. Additionally, since starting Timeless Presents we’ve realised that including bright and contrasting colours is better for those with dementia as the way sight is interpreted by the brain can become affected as part of the dementia so we have incorporated this into our design. We expect that, in the same way the contents of Dad’s box evolved, the same will happen in any care setting. We also used to buy additional small items to add to the box, because, who doesn’t appreciate a present?
As I’m writing this it occurs to me that during this process we started to use a different ‘currency’ in deciding what to buy my Dad. Instead of the perceived cost or value of an item we took notice of the perceived interest it might hold for him irrespective of the cost, which was usually minimal. That is, instead of buying him gifts befitting of his status of loved Dad, Grandad and Great Grandad we bought him things that spoke to him in his altered state. Things that intrigued him enough to engage and connect with us, and give us both some