The importance of Memory Books: an interview with Presenting Your Past Founder Rachel Lewis

Ella
20th April 2021

Together with her sister Alice, Rachel Lewis runs Presenting Your Past, helping people tell their story and create a book of their life. Family stories often become lost in the mists of time. Boxes of old photos can’t tell a story on their own. Diaries and letters can help, but you don’t always get the full picture.

Creating a memory book is a wonderful way to preserve this family history and Presenting Your Past work with you- combining your story and favourite pictures to create a keepsake that will be treasured for generations to come. We spoke with Rachel about the importance of documenting memories in this way and how Covid-19 has made this way of connecting even more meaningful.

What was the motivation to start Presenting your Past- what gap did you see?

We started Presenting Your Past, after seeing how reminiscing over old photos and memories benefited our Gran, who was suffering with Dementia. On a personal level it was great for us to learn more about her early life and after a little research we discovered the therapeutic benefits for Gran. We have been working hard to bring these benefits to other families and I think we’re pretty unique in the way we value both the process and the production of these books. 

There are lots of high-end companies out there who are all about the final product. They can record your family history or memoirs, and you end up with a beautifully produced glossy book to share.  The only problem is that these services can cost hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. 

At the other end of the spectrum, there are lots of charities, or wellbeing services offering Life Story Work because the actual process of doing these projects offers so many benefits. However, the templates used can make it difficult to have a personal feel, and the finished projects are often just printouts in a ring binder.

We therefore decided to fill this gap.  With high quality, affordable printing technology, there’s no reason it has to be a choice between process and production. We offer a personalised, accessible, therapeutic service, whilst enabling people to create beautiful books they can be truly proud of.

We know how important memory books are to families, it can offer a grounding and a way of connecting from afar. What experience do you have of this firsthand?

Covid 19 has really highlighted the importance of connecting from afar. With the first Lockdown it was obvious that we would have to suspend all our 1-1 interviews. However, it also became clear that there was still a need for families to connect, and we started to get calls asking for tips on how families could create books for themselves. 

I think we’re all spending more time checking in on family,  either on the phone or online. However, when there’s not much going on in our lives, we can soon run out of things to discuss!  Doing a Life Story project helps give structure, meaning and context to the time we can spend together.

So, we set to work, trying to  create an accessible, easy to follow guide.  Life Story work is the perfect way to bring families together- remembering happy times, sharing new stories, and working creatively across the generations.

Can you share some of the stories that stand out to you?

When we started the service, we mainly worked on birthday celebrations and anniversaries. One of my favourites was a lady celebrating her 100th birthday. She’d lived through so much- and it was fascinating to hear her memories of her Edwardian parents.  It was difficult to believe that she’d actually spent most of her childhood confined to the nursery with ‘Nanny.’  It was straight out of Mary Poppins! Her book was the centrepiece of a wonderful family birthday celebration and it was lovely to feel that we’d helped preserve so much precious family history.

How does The Acorn Project work to improve person-centred and dementia care?

The Acorn project is the charitable side of Presenting Your Past. We feel passionately that everyone has a Life Story worth telling, and that these stories are crucial in delivering meaningful person-centred care.

Life story books are a way of easily informing carers of a person’s likes and dislikes, pre-empting future care needs and sharing key family history.  Our books also give people the power to define how they want to be seen by the rest of the world. Quite simply,  it’s impossible to understand a person’s present, if you have no knowledge of their past.

We offer our DIY guide free to any full time individual carers, or charities focussed on person-centred or dementia care. We also provide training to these organisations, enabling more people to help create Life Story books.

We know Covid-19 has had a really worrying impact on people living alone, or who are more vulnerable- what role did Presenting your Past play?

Nobody has escaped the impact of this pandemic and for us, it’s just highlighted the importance of our work.

I think it has disproportionally affected the elderly and vulnerable members of our communities. In a survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s Society, half of relatives said that their loved ones’ memories had got worse after they began living more isolated lives.

Limits on socialising within care homes and in some cases a ban on any visitors for many months has also taken a terrible toll.

All of us are seeing fewer people, getting out less, and consequently we have fewer stories to tell.  We’re not socialising with our peers- think about those ‘water cooler moments.’  Consequently, we're not sharing our stories, and our memories aren’t being processed in the same way. Only time will tell what the impact will be on our long-term memories.

Presenting your past, and life story work, gives people the chance to use this time to connect with family and friends to organise a trip down Memory Lane.  Spending half an hour on the phone talking about the ‘good old times’ might prompt some untold stories, generating new stories for you to share around your virtual ‘water cooler.’  Even remembering the ’not-so good’ times is valuable.  We got through those, so we can get through this. 

Our new DIY guide is available at www.presentingyourpast.com