Valuable Lessons From Shared Memories

By Judith Maginnis Kuster

I still remember my first diagnostic as an undergraduate. I was paired with a graduate student and had practiced all the tests, although I knew he was going to administer most of them. My preparation the night before included watching after-school and early-evening television -- the "Flintstones," "Quick Draw McGraw," and "Lost in Space." It appeared that the diagnostic, a 7-year-old with a severe language disorder, would be a disaster. He cried for the first 20 minutes as his mother, the graduate clinician, and our supervisor attempted to settle him down. The supervisor concluded that an evaluation on that day was impossible and she and the graduate student went to the observation room to visit with the parents, leaving me with the sobbing child.

I started talking quietly about Lost in Space and the evil powers they had encountered the night before. He started to listen. His sobbing stopped. He began to talk. The supervisor popped her head in the door and said, "Keep going." In the next 1.5 hours, I completed a language sample, an articulation test, and all the other tests planned while my supervisor and the others watched from behind the one-way mirror.

That day I learned an important lesson about "shared memories." It's a lesson that's proved to be valuable for working with people at both ends of the age spectrum.

Many clinicians, especially with young families, have shared memories with children in their caseloads. They know about "Sponge Bob," "Clifford the Big Red Dog," "Bob the Builder," and that Steve from "Blues Clues" has left for college. For clinicians who do not watch children's programs on a regular basis, exploring Internet sites featuring characters popular with children can help you develop "shared memories" as well as uncover numerous potential treatment activities. Check out:

My earlier experience with "shared memories" was later important in another diagnostic. I was asked to evaluate a stroke survivor in a small rural nursing home. He had been verbally unresponsive since his stroke six weeks before my visit. He usually refused food. He ignored visitors. The doctor's diagnosis on his chart was "global aphasia with left-sided hemiplegia." I was suspicious.

Before my visit I picked up a local newspaper, reading about problems with junior high students smoking on school property. Entering his darkened room, I found him awake, but unresponsive to any testing attempts. I started summarizing stories from the newspaper. When I talked about the problems at the junior high his expression changed slightly. Finishing the story I said, "I bet you're a Marlboro man." Without turning his head, he responded, "Nope. Chesterfield." I replied, "You're fooling people, aren't you?" He said, "Yup."

There was no aphasia. He had decided to give up after his stroke. Medication for depression and regular visits by volunteers put him back on the road to recovery.

Shared memories may be common with children in treatment caseloads, but today's younger clinicians and some of their older clients may not have many shared memories. The Internet can help bridge the gap between generations to learn about possible memories in older patients. Start by entering your client's birthdate in Boy the Bear's Age Gauge ( to discover popular songs, TV shows, movies, people, and world events your client may remember.

Many Internet sites feature "nostalgia themes" which can help develop shared memories or be adapted for treatment materials. A few good examples:

Judith Kuster is in the department of speech, hearing, and rehabilitation services at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Contact her by email at All of Kuster’s Internet columns are on the ASHA Web site in HTML format with active links, although URLs change and there is no guarantee that links from previous articles are still functional.

Kuster, JM, Valuable Lessons From Shared Memories, ASHA Leader, August 3 2003, p. 23ff