This SEAL assembly for primary schools aims to educate primary school children on Alzheimers and memory loss in older generations, and encourages them to sympathise with, rather than laugh at, the difficulties it presents them with

Introduction for teachers
The government is keen to try to remove the stigma of memory loss among older people. The aim is to create understanding of conditions like Alzheimer’s, so that they’re taken seriously rather than joked about among families and friends.

The assembly doesn’t go into the details of Alzheimer’s, or the cognitive psychology around memory. What it does aim to do is help children to be aware of the enormous part that memory – and memories – play in the lives of all of us as we grow older and how we need to value other peoples’ memories and cherish our own.

Some flash cards with words or numbers or pictures of common objects.

[Show a series of about six flash cards, briefly, one at a time. Then ask the children if they can recall them in order]

You see, it’s not very easy is it, although some of you did very well indeed. What did you use to do that? Your brain? Yes. But what in particular in your brain did you use? Yes; your memory.

Your memory is amazing. It pieces together words and pictures from the past – from earlier today, from last week, from last year – so that in a way you get to live through them all over again.

Who has ever spent time thinking about a good memory they have, replaying it in their mind like a video, when someone speaks to you and don’t hear? Anyone done that? Then someone says, “Oh she’s miles away. HELLO?!”

And you’re not miles away really – you’re just in the past, reliving something good that happened to you that day at school or last year on holiday.

Good memories can really cheer you up can’t they? Who has a special memory that they’d like to share with us?

[Take some stories]

They’re all wonderful aren’t they? And I want to tell you this. Those memories will stay with you forever. Other memories will pile in to join them, but the ones you have now will still be there, ready to come back and make you smile all over again.

Now I want you to try something for me.

Close your eyes., and think of a memory that’s so good, so nice, so comfortable, so cheerful, that it will make you smile as soon as you remember it. Can you do that? We’ll have a moment of silence while you think about it…

Do you know what, I just saw something wonderful. All of you sitting quietly with closed eyes, and so many lovely smiles on your faces.

Memory, you see, is a powerful thing. It can help you to enjoy something all over again. The lady in this story knows that, and tries to explain it. She’s talking to a class of children. She’s called Emma. Let’s be quiet and listen.

Thank you for inviting me to your class to talk about the past. I have so many memories you know, and I will do my best to answer your questions about what life was like when I was a girl. But I’ve done this quite a few times now, and I decided that this time I would start by asking you just to listen for a while. That’s because sometimes when you ask me your questions I feel I haven’t been able to tell you about the feelings that go with my memories. And they are very important you see.

Sure enough, I was a little girl when the second world war was being fought. And, yes, I remember bombs and aeroplanes, and marching soldiers. And I was a young woman when rock and roll started, and a car factory worker in the days when there many car factories in Britain. I could tell you all about the clothes and the music and going to the pictures. But let me tell you what I remember most from my life. It’s quite simply the kindness of people. So many people have been kind to me, and it’s those acts of kindness that I remember so well.

I remember my mother picking me up in the street when I fell down. I was playing ‘tag’ around a lamp post with my friends – we played in the street a lot you see — and I tripped over the kerb and fell. Two girls ran for my mother, and she came and picked me up. She must have been baking bread, because I remember the flour on her apron as she cuddled me to her, and the warmth of her as she helped me into our kitchen and gave me just one sweet from a tin, because sweets were very precious then, I can still taste it, just a plain boiled sweet, but I hadn’t had one for a long time and it comforted me and I stopped crying.

I remember when my Uncle Jack came home from the war, and brought me a doll that he had bought in a far-away country – I still don’t know where. I held it close to me, and Uncle Jack picked me up and swung me high, and said how good it was to be home. And somehow the happy feelings that were flooding through him spilled over into me, and I laughed out loud with him.

Then I remember my teacher giving me extra lessons after school because he thought I could do well in the scholarship exam. He encouraged me, and made me feel that I could do anything if I put my mind to it.

Above all I remember when I was a young woman, and I met my young man − the one who became my husband. He was funny, and polite, but above all he was kind and thoughtful. He spoke gently to me, in a way that other boys often didn’t, and he always listened and tried to understand my feelings. He was like that for the rest of our time together – oh I suppose he could be grumpy, too, although that makes me smile just as much as the memory of his kindness.

You see, boys and girls, our memories aren’t just about places and experiences and fashions. Most of all they are about the people we’ve met in our lives. They stream past in my mind, so many people. Oh yes, some of them are not such nice people, but I let them pass through my memory in a hurry, and I linger as long as I can with all the good and kind ones.

All of you now, at the start of your long lives, are already building up memories like that – of the kindness of your good friends, and the love of your families. Cling to those memories, because they will bring smiles to your faces for as long as you live.

Now let me tell you a little secret. My own memory isn’t as good as it used to be. When you ask me questions, some of the things I tell you about I really can’t remember as well as I seem to – it’s just that I’ve told the stories so many times. And I forget little things – like where my handbag is, what day the milkman comes. All kinds of memories will fade away from me as time goes on. But what will stay strong in my heart, are those memories of kindness – of my mother’s floury apron on my cheek, of my teacher bending over my desk to explain very patiently something that was troubling me, of my Uncle Jack – and all my other uncles – who always seemed so pleased to see me, and to enjoy making me laugh. And of my young man, and his particular laugh that I still hear as if he’s just popped into the next room. Those are the memories that count for me.

Memories, you see, are more than just nice pictures in the mind that you can look at from time to time. They are part of you, they make you who you are. Do you think Emma is a kind person? Does she have a good sense of humour? Is she clever? Yes, she has all of those things, and the memories that she carries have played their part in making her like that.

Isn’t it good that Emma decided not just to listen to questions about happenings, but to tell us what she really feels? Perhaps we should all remember that. The people we meet – adults, other children, older people – all of them could probably tell us about the thoughts and memories that really matter. All they need is a bit of patience on our part to listen.

A prayer
We remember all people who gain support and comfort from good memories and especially those who struggle to remember how they fit into the world around them. Give them courage, may they be surrounded by patience and love. We pray, too for doctors and researchers who try hard to make things better for people whose lives are spoiled by memory loss.

Memory is a sort of treasure chest of precious things – something to turn to and enjoy when we feel the need for comfort.

Things to do
Next time you’re talking to an older person about the past – perhaps gathering material for a project – try to concentrate on feelings, and encounters with special people rather than just on information that you can probably get from other sources.

Further information
The Alzheimer’s Society has a factsheet on explaining the condition to young people.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in February 2009

About the author: Gerald Haigh