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Dementia Care: Putting a Shadowbox Together

Posted Apr 18 2011 12:00am

Assembling a shadowbox to use for your family member with dementia can be easy to do as you have most items you need right around your home.  A shadowbox is a container in which items of interest to a particular person or group are displayed safely.  How to put one together is a question often asked by home caregivers as well as paid caregivers who work in a facility.

Before we get into the process, I thought we should review the reasons for using a shadowbox.  Here are some ways that a shadowbox can assist the person with dementia as well as educate the caregiver:

  • Help a person become oriented to a particular space, such as their room, family room or themself.  Using pictures and momentos from the distant past (not last week) may be recognized by the person with dementia and help trigger a connection.
  • Teach the caregivers about the whole person and the history of the person with dementia.  Whether caregivers are used in the home or in a facility setting, they meet the person with dementia at a time in their life where some of their previous roles and interests may not be easily apparent.  The shadowbox can be used as a resource for the caregiver to engage in conversation that has meaning to the person, rather than idle talk.  For instance, Joe has a model of an airplane in his shadow box as he used to make and display him during his teen years.  He also won two awards for best in show.  Rather than a caregiver saying, "Good morning Joe" (although there is nothing wrong with that), the person instead could take a cue from the shadowbox and say, "Good Morning Joe, doesn't it seem like a great day for working on model airplanes?"  A specific area of interest has been introduced that can hopefully spark his attention for a while.
  • Acts as an important tool for interactions with the person with dementia for all visitors.  Most of us, even regular family members, can use a guideline on tough days to stimulate a conversation with person with dementia.
  • Provide the person with dementia a quality of life moment.  Whether a shadowbox is on the wall or the type that can be placed in a person's lap, the contents are readily available to take out, touch (if appropriate) and generate memories.

So let's put a shadowbox together.

You will need to purchase or make a rectangular box that is closed on 3 sides and has a way to open the front section.  Michaels or most larger craft stores carry them finished or unfinished.  You can also buy them in specialty stores.  Be sure to have your final product sanded and painted or stained to avoid splinters.  Here is a double compartment version we used in a facility I worked in; there is space for two people to have items displayed:

 For safety, any shadowbox you use should have a safe way to protect the contents.  In this case, you can see that there is a pull out top:  a piece of plexiglass that has a top to it.  When the box is closed, the pull out top blends right into the overall box:

There are many types so find one that suits you and your person with dementia.

We are putting together a box for Marcy and we need to gather some powerful reminders of her past.  First, the background.  This style of shadowbox has a padding already to make pinning up items easier.  You can personalize the box a bit by using unique papers for the background.  Craft and art supply stores have many to choose from and you can buy just one sheet if you want.

We chose two pictures:  one of her and her husband on their wedding day and another of her in her cousin's bridal party.  These are some of her most valuable pictures that she likes to look at over and over.  Don't worry about losing a picture--simply get it scanned or reproduced so you have the original safe someplace.  Here are Marcy's pictures:


Next, we collect items about her past interests:  crosstitching (a live sample with a needle in it), paint brushes with a postcard of a watercolor by Monet, a bible as she was religious and still responds to that, a tea package from a favorite tea and a card she got of a four-leafed clover in Ireland.  Here are the  items:

Lastly, we can represent her love of gardening by cutting out a few pictures from a magazine.

Using hat pins (another throwback to her past when hats were regularly worn), we arrange and pin the items in place until we are happy with the results.  Here is the finished project with space for another person or more room for her, if desired.  One last thing we could add would be a large typed out version of her name--we didn't in this case.


So tell us about your experiences putting together shadowboxes and if you wish, send us a picture of the finished product.  There is no real skill involved here; just a desire to trigger the interests of a person with dementia.


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