Individuals who work at elder care facilities, specifically those with a large population of residents suffering from dementia (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, Korsakoff syndrome, Huntington’s disease), are always searching for new ways to improve daily living for those in their care.
Struggling with memory loss is difficult enough, but when you factor in the added stress of moving into an unfamiliar environment, it’s no surprise that residents often exhibit behavioral challenges, including irritability and navigational trouble.
In an attempt to reduce these behavioral challenges, elder care facilities are now looking at the addition of prosthetic memory aids such as assisted living memory boxes as a useful method for creating a more welcoming, functional environment for residents.
What Are Assisted Living Memory Boxes?
Assisted living memory boxes are a type of prosthetic memory aid—“pictures and text that contain personal information about the resident.”
Also referred to simply as memory boxes or location boxes, assisted living memory boxes typically consist of mementos such as the following:
- ID cards
- Vacation souvenirs
- Baby toys
- Church or company newsletters
However, any small item that has personal significance to an individual can be included.
This collection of personal items, usually encased in a hinged shadow box, provides memory cues that can help an individual reorient themselves to their surroundings.
How Can Mounted Memory Boxes Benefit Elder Care Facilities?
Mounted memory boxes, which (as the name suggests) are memory boxes installed on the wall next to a resident’s room, can offer a number of benefits to elder care facilities and the individuals who live within them.
1. They can help with wayfinding.
As noted above, navigational trouble is a major issue among residents at elder care facilities. However, assisted living memory boxes have been found to help with room identification and wayfinding by showcasing photos and other items that are specific to them. Seeing, touching, and even smelling personal effects can trigger memory cues in residents, identifying the room next to the mounted box as their own. As such, these prosthetic memory aids could offer a potential solution to wayfinding difficulties.
Research has shown that, “in addition to helping residents ﬁnd their own bedroom, shadow boxes may aid participants in locating other residents’ bedrooms as well.”
Staff members at senior living communities may also consider strategically placing landmark boxes throughout the building to aid residents in locating common areas, thereby improving residents’ wayfinding capabilities even more.
2. They can improve self-recognition.
Though the contents of assisted living memory boxes can vary, experts recommend that—at the very least—photos of residents throughout various points in their lives should be included.
Research suggests that individuals with some forms of dementia experience retrograde amnesia as the disease progresses, which means they are better able to recognize photos of themselves from earlier in life. By including pictures of residents from childhood, teenage years, and young adulthood in their memory boxes, caregivers can increase the chances of residents seeing the images and recognizing that they’re the subject.
Further, some research has suggested, “choosing photos with unique, personalized, contextual factors may aid in the facilitation of self-recognition.”
3. They can reduce conflict between residents.
Conflict between residents is a common issue for elder care facilities. For instance, “if an individual wanders into another resident’s bedroom and behaves as if it is their own (e.g., riﬂing through the individual’s personal items), the actual resident of the room may respond appropriately with distress or act in a self-protective manner that may harm that inadvertent intruder.”
In such cases, the ensuing disagreement is the result of a simple misunderstanding—one that could be prevented by taking simple measures such as labeling rooms with memory boxes.
As previously mentioned, assisted living memory boxes provide residents with memory cues, making it easier for them to locate their respective spaces. This additional form of room identification has the potential to reduce at least one type of conflict between residents by increasing the likelihood of one resident seeing another’s memory box and realizing the room next to it is not their own.
4. They can spark creativity.
Some elder care facilities that use memory boxes to identify residents’ rooms opt to use mementos chosen by residents’ family members. Others, however, encourage residents to select their own personal items.
With the latter approach, residents are engaged in a fun project that not only jogs their memory but also sparks creativity. Individuals who personalize their own memory box may get so much enjoyment out of the exercise that they’re inspired to create a scrapbook or another box.
5. They can foster feelings of warmth, familiarity, and security.
Due to the fact that moving to an unfamiliar place can put added strain on individuals with dementia, caregivers should look for every opportunity to make them feel more comfortable and secure. With the addition of assisted living memory boxes, elder care facilities can provide residents with mementos of home, prompting memory cues of their history and interests.
Memory boxes also clearly identify residents’ rooms, filling them with a sense of inclusivity and belonging they might otherwise lack.
Additionally, it’s been found that “personalized shadow boxes provide opportunities for conversation between residents and staff.” The introduction of such dialogue not only helps residents bond with their caregivers but also provides additional opportunities for memory retrieval, as staff members can ask residents what certain mementos represent.
Can ADA Room Number Signs Be Used with Memory Boxes?
ADA room numbers signs can be used with memory boxes. In fact, the combination is strongly encouraged.
Assisted living facilities must follow strict ADA guidelines, especially when it comes to signage. Residents of such establishments often suffer from poor vision and other physical impairments, which makes ADA compliance crucial from both a legal and practical standpoint.
Per ADA guidelines, ADA room number signs are required to have crisp, clean lettering in an easily legible font, along with Grade 2 Braille. Such characteristics make the intended meaning of signage quickly understood, which is helpful for those with cognitive issues. Therefore, including ADA room number signs with assisted living memory boxes can only further increase ease of navigation and room identification for residents.
Moreover, the inclusion of Braille room signs and small, tangible personal items such as symbolic trinkets can still provide memory cues to those experiencing both dementia and vision degeneration.
More in-depth research into assisted living memory boxes will undoubtedly show that these prosthetic memory aids can be very helpful to those residing in elder care facilities.
With that in mind, those who work at such establishments should consider adding mounted memory boxes outside of residents’ rooms to improve navigation, self-recognition, and overall atmosphere.
Further, sign shops that are frequently brought on to
produce signage for organizations in this industry should look into potential
partnerships with third-party fabricators that can craft attractive,
high-quality memory boxes that meet ADA guidelines.
 Allison A. Ilem, Leilani Feliciano & Linda A. LeBlanc (2015) Recognition of Self-Referent Stimuli in People With Dementia: Names and Pictures as Prosthetic Memory Aids, Clinical Gerontologist, 38:2, 157-169, DOI: 10.1080/07317115.2014.990602
 Ilem, A. A., & Feliciano, L. (2018). Finding your way home: A systematic investigation of shadowboxes on room recognition in memory care. Behavior Analysis: Research and Practice, 18(1), 41-61. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bar0000066