When my Mum’s dementia developed to the stage where she needed to move into a care home, I struggled to know what to do with the small things she no longer wanted or needed. House keys, library card, guitar picks, jewellery and other knick-knacks, even bras that she found uncomfortable and didn’t want to wear. These were the symbols of her life. They were of no value to anyone else but I didn’t want to throw them away or donate them to charity shops. How might I preserve the symbols of her life while also coping with the ongoing grief that dementia brings? As I so often do when I struggle to cope with challenging life events or times, I make things. This time I turned to art.


The process of making a memory pod is more important than the end result. During the making, I reflect on Mum’s life and our relationship. As I choose the objects, as I choose the texture and colour of the materials, and while I stitch and wrap, I’m reminded of things Mum has said or done, moments we’ve spent together. There’s a movie of her life running through my mind while I make. I catch myself smiling, laughing, sometimes crying. It helps me come to terms with the unresolved and ongoing grief of ambiguous loss. Ambiguous loss is a term coined by the psychologist Pauline Boss. It’s the type of loss that is unresolved because the loved one is both here and not here – physically present but psychologically absent. It could be argued that a person living with dementia is transforming. Making a memory pod is analogous to this transformation. By transforming Mum’s everyday objects into art, I aim to  extend and deepen her life story, and to show the beauty of an ordinary life.


I mostly use small objects because they’re easy to work with. I use free and found materials to wrap and stitch the pods, often placing the object in a scrap of material or paper, a piece of Mum’s clothing or one of the doilies she crocheted. Then I use wool, cotton, string, ribbon to encase the object. Anything that I’ve got, I’ll use. I don’t buy anything. All the materials I use are free or found – given to me by people that don’t want them anymore or bits and bobs I’ve picked up along the way. People are always willing to give me their wool or ribbons that they haven’t touched for years. I use Mum’s old tapestry needles to do the stitching. I’m not a sewer, so the stitches are rough and ready. Sometimes I don’t stitch, just weave the threads and wool together in a way that sticks. I follow my nose. Some pods I’ll make in one sitting over a few hours. But others take longer, a few days or more. When I finished making the first pod I had a long thread left over. I was about to cut it off, but it struck me that the thread might represent an umbilical cord, a connection from Mum to me, from the pod to the world. The thread was another symbol reminding me that none of us live in isolation. We are all connected.

 I recently shared my process with the facility manager of the new aged care home my Mum has moved into. She posted the information contained in this blogpost along with images of the pod-in-process on the Resident and Community Board, in the hope that it might be of therapeutic benefit to others struggling to cope with ongoing grief and the ambiguous loss that dementia brings. If you know anyone who is struggling to come to terms with having a loved one living with dementia, and may find this process useful, please pass it on. Or they might like to contact the Dementia Australia Helpline on 1800 100 500. 

Loving Someone Who Has Dementia: How to Find Hope While Coping with Stress and Grief. Pauline Boss PhD, 2011


Carolyn Cordon said…
This is beautiful, Caroline.
Finding our way through the grief that comes, as we work our way through the process of acknowledging our parent's undeniable ageing, is a grief overshadowed by memories of the good times we had, but knowing any further such times will be difficult, if not impossible. It's so hard ... You method is beautiful.
Caroline said…
Hi Carolyn,
Yes, it's certainly a challenging time that requires us to slow down. Acknowledging our own aging complicates things too , I think. Thanks for your lovely response C x