“Dad always liked a big Father’s Day celebration,” my friend told me. “But now he’s deep into dementia; I’m not sure he would notice.” When Ron’s dad Frank relaxed into dementia, Ron and I often struggled with how to approach Father’s Day. Even though Frank didn’t know what day it was, we still wanted to honor Frank as a father. Here are four fabulous ways to celebrate when Dad has dementia.
Reminiscing over Favorite Foods
We brought in a meal created from some of Franks’ current favorites and some gems from the past. Frank’s wife Mollie made her world-famous brownies and legendary rice pilaf. We bought cooked steaks and baked potatoes and as we ate, we talked about meals past. Inspired by the familiar tastes, smells and textures, Frank recited one of this favored old phrases: “I’m cool to other women but I’m hot tamale (Hot to Mollie.)”
Naming His Tunes
Frank and Mollie liked to dance occasionally and for one celebration, we printed out song lyrics and sang Frank and Mollie some of their old favorites. We didn’t sound like Sinatra or Fitzgerald as we warbled “It Had to be You,” or “Stardust” or “Three Coins in the Fountain” but we did sound sincere!
Ron and I created a HERO Project for Frank, a story-scrap book that incorporated highlights and photos from Frank’s life, along with a meaningful storyline. We also created one for Mollie. We read the HERO Projects with Frank and Mollie, using the stories as conversational catalysts. Frank enjoyed the experience; we enjoyed reading aloud with Frank and remembering shared experiences.
Celebrating Special Qualities and Life Lessons
As we sat together, we talked about some of Frank’s many stellar qualities, which included his easy-going nature, his natural charm, his entrepreneurial spirit, and his willingness to try new things. “Did I really do that?” Frank asked, as Ron described the bowling alley Frank and his brother owned and operated. “You did,” Ron said.“That was really something,” Frank said.
Frank’s comment summed up our Father’s Day celebration: it was really something. Just being together was wonderful. And taking time to really celebrate Frank with a tender mixture of food, photos, stories, and conversation was pure magic.
For more ideas on Naming His Tunes, please visit the exciting MusicandMemory.org
Creating Low-Cost, Engaging Activities
Alice looks blankly at the magazine as Kimberly Clark turns the pages, pointing to various pictures. “What do you think of this? Or this?” she asks, pointing to a rose, a table set for tea, a bundt cake. When Kimberly touches a picture of a train, Alice smiles. Although Alice, who is living with dementia, can no longer tell her own stories, Kimberly has heard tales of her adventurous past. When Alice was a restless young woman, she and her new husband occasionally jumped on a freight train and took a ride. This photo will be the centerpiece of the collage they are making. As Program Coordinator at ARC Jackson County, a lifespan respite program in Medford, Oregon, Kimberly is an expert at creating low-cost, engaging activities for people who are living with dementia.
Creating collages is easy, inexpensive, and relaxing. Medical offices will donate their old magazines and she also collects periodicals from friends. If Kimberly knows her client’s family stories, she seeks magazines that have illustrations relevant to them. She lays out a variety of magazines and asks, “Which one do you want to look at first?” They sit together and Kimberly slowly turns pages, listening for comments, watching body language, and facial expressions. When she sees interest or excitement, she may ask, “What are you looking at?” or “What does this remind you of?” She then tears out the picture and sets it aside, so it’s not distracting. Once they have a nice group of photos, they start on the collage, cutting and pasting together.
“The project is empowering and can spark discussion,” Kimberly says. “Plus, we can take our time and we have something artistic and interesting to discuss when it’s done.”
She often uses the finished collage again and again as a conversation starter.
Kimberly also engages people through simple nature walks, where they notice the colors, shapes, wildlife, and collect vibrantly colored leaves, pinecones, acorns, and more.
She celebrates people’s individuality by writing their name on watercolor paper in black marker and inviting them to fill in the letters and surroundings with colored pencils.
When people need a little exercise and a good laugh, she invites her dog to join them in a sparkling game of balloon volleyball. Her dog is an expert at keeping the balloon aloft and soon everyone is supporting him in this uplifting endeavor.
“Even if you’re not in a good mood, doing some kind of art, exercise, or creative project makes you stop and appreciate the present,” Kimberly says.
- Invite several musical kids/friends/relatives to come over, tell you about their instrument, and help you make a sound on it.
- Have fun playing imaginary instruments along with a big band or big orchestra music.
- Listen to favorite instrumentals and talk about any memories evoked.
- Look at pictures of various instruments and share stories. Ask open-ended questions with no right or wrong answers, such as, “ What do you think about the piano?” “What are some of your favorite instruments?”
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If my mother were still alive, I would be taking her roses and chocolate this Mother’s Day. She would be delighted and her delight would magnify when my daughters and her great-grandchildren arrived. Love is such a beautiful glue, such a simple and strong way to stay connected. I wanted to share this story from Love in the Land of Dementia, as a way of celebrating our mothers.
The Woman She Was
My friend Karen gives me a gift: she says, “Tell me about your mother.”
We are sitting in a quiet mid-afternoon café and I let the question sink into me.
When friends occasionally ask me, “How is your mother doing?” I have different answers, depending on the situation. If we are in one of those conversations that are like confetti in brisk wind, I say, “She’s okay.”
If we are sitting across from each other and my friend is looking right at me, I answer, “She’s pretty deep into Alzheimer’s.”
“Does she recognize you?” she might ask.
“No, but she may recognize I am a person she likes,” I answer.
That usually ends that conversation.
But “Tell me about your mother,” is an invitation I don’t usually get.
“What would you like to know?” I ask.
She stirs her iced mocha. “Whatever you want to tell me,” she says softly. “I would like to know about her life and her interests.”
Since my mother has been in the nursing home with Alzheimer’s, I have seldom talked about the person she used to be. Occasionally my father and I reminisce about family vacations and outings. I sometimes ask Dad questions about our growing up days and the early days of their courtship. But I rarely think about the woman I knew all my life, the mother, grandmother, artist, gardener, compassionate friend, avid reader, bird-watcher, early morning walker, lemon-meringue pie baker. That woman is gone and I have spent a lot of energy learning to know and appreciate the woman who now commandeers her body.
As I consider what I want to tell Karen, I remember visiting my mom’s best friend, Bel, in California when I was a teenager. Bel, who was spunky and adventurous in a way that seemed so different from my conservative mother, drove me from Berkeley to the small resort where I would work as a chambermaid for the summer.
“Do you know how I met your mom?” she asked me, as we drove down the winding roads, past fragrant stands of eucalyptus trees.
“In Iceland, during the World War II,” I said. I had heard stories of the two of them taking a break from their work in the hospital by skiing, then stopping for a soak in a hot springs.
“No, we met earlier in Chicago. We were both nurses working the twelve-hour night shift. The hospital had a room with a couple of bunk beds so we could rest on breaks. One night I walked in there and heard the most heart-breaking sobbing. It was Frances, crying her eyes out. I asked her what was wrong and she said, ‘Nothing.’”
I smiled. That sounded like Mom, never wanting to admit anything was wrong.
“Then I asked her again and she sobbed out that her husband Sam had died six months ago from pneumonia. She was so sad she didn’t know if she could go on. A bunch of other nurses and I were going to Florida for a short vacation and I persuaded your mother to join us. But as it turned out, we never went; a week later I decided to join the Army and I encouraged her to come along. We’ve been best friends ever since.”
When I heard this story at the age of seventeen, I was too young to fathom my mother’s grief and despair. By the time I told Karen the story, I had some sense of what my mother must have gone through.
“Your Mom was really brave, to serve in the Army during wartime,” Karen says.
I feel a little swell of pride. Mom’s tales of traveling in the darkest night on the troop ship, with bombs falling nearby, were so familiar I had never considered her bravery and courage.
Now I tell Karen how my father, encouraged by Bel’s husband, wrote Mom a letter, telling her he was ready to marry a nice Jewish girl. Was she interested? Was she available?
After some correspondence, Mom surprised herself by agreeing to meet him in Chicago. At the end of the week, my father asked her to marry him. She considered the offer for three weeks and accepted. Their whirlwind romance was fueled by practicality.
“What a great story,” Karen says. “Your mother must be an amazing woman.”
Sparked by Karen’s interest, I let myself feel my love for my mother as she used to be. I am in tears by the time our conversation ends.
“Thank you for asking me about my mother,” I say to Karen.
“Your stories make me want to call my own mom and hear her stories again.”
As I drive home, I think of more “mom” stories to share with my children and my brother. I see myself, along with my brother and father, as the carrier of my mother’s sacred legacy. I imagine myself tenderly fanning the embers, adding dry leaves and crumbled paper, creating a blaze with each memory. I realize I don’t have to give up Mom’s old self: I can be her historian and her scribe, carrying her stories with me, and making sure they live on.
Karli Ritter is a self-described “weather nerd.” When this Fox 4 meteorologist finished her lively talk at April’s KC Memory Cafe, we all had a bit of that “weather nerd” fever in us. We listened intently as Karli described her early morning routine, up at 4:30 a.m., studying the weather maps and data so she could formulate a forecast. She detailed the complexities of being an integral part of a five-hour show: she actually appears on TV 90 times during the Kansas City Fox morning show! Her talk reminded us that great weather information inspires great conversations.
Karli has a love for storms and we were delighted with our “tornado” experience, courtesy of the Kansas City Public Library staff. We used a special coupler to link one empty liter bottle with one half full with water. Then we shook and turned it upside down and voila! a little tunnel tornado formed in the water! Each person was fascinated by this experiment. That led us to a conversation about personal weather experiences. Our attendees had gone through hurricanes, earthquakes, dust storms, tornadoes, nor’easter’s and much more.
Our discussion continued on the way out, with guests describing the varied weather in the Kansas Flint Hills, rainbows they’d seen, family members who loved forecasting the weather, and long hot summers and long cold winters.
Bringing the weather home.
To start a weather conversation in your own family or community, use music as a catalyst. Play songs such as: You Are My Sunshine, Stormy Weather, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, The Sunny Side of the Street, Let It Snow. After each song, ask an open-ended question. “What do you like about snow?” Or,” What seasons do you like most?” Or “Have you ever been in a really big storm?” Or,”What is your favorite kind of weather?”
You can also play iconic movie clips that feature weather, such as the joyous tap dancing scene in Singing in the Rain, or the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz.
Dramatic weather photos and pictures can also trigger memories and comments.
Thanks to our Cafe Team and thanks for those who visited.
Our next adventure: May 15, 10:30 to 12:00, Plaza Library
Music to Our Ears: The Kansas City Symphony Brings Us Note-worthy Instruments
You’ve heard them as part of the orchestra. Now you’ll be meeting selected instruments first-hand, as the Symphony’s Margaret Halloin joins us for this delightful interactive session. Enjoy refreshments and interesting conversations as we learn more about the sounds of music.
It’s a Sunday morning in early April and we were excited about our Movies and Memories laughter program that afternoon at 2:00.
Then, the unthinkable happened. It started to snow, blanketing the daffodils and tulips with just enough flakes to make people want to cozy up at home.
What did we do? Laugh, of course.
Laughter was the theme of our April program and we had excerpts from the inestimable Mr. Bean to anchor our program.
As Emily from the Kansas City Public Library, Plaza Branch, made our popcorn and other library staff readied the technology, we accepted the fact that we might have only our intrepid volunteers in the audience. We all vowed to have a great time anyway.
Musician Richelle Basgall regaled us with songs and stories and our guests began to arrive. Soon we had about 30 people who ignored the weather and were ready for fun. And fun we had. One of our volunteers brought us sumptuous cookies and small cakes. The aroma of fresh popcorn warmed us all and we laughed our way through a hilarious clip of Mr. Bean playing miniature golf. Then we passed out jokes, which we laughingly shared with each other. (What kind of sandwiches do astronauts eat: Launch meat! Why did the oil painting get sent to jail? It was framed!)
After watching Mr. Bean’s laundromat escapades, we had a laughter yoga session. We didn’t have to worry about traditional physical yoga postures—laughter yoga includes clapping, gestures, playfulness, and breathing. Everyone was a hearty laugher and we were all relaxed and smiling as we watched Mr. Bean’s horror as he tried to cope with raw oysters at a fancy restaurant.
Our ending surprise was a delicious way to take Mr. Bean home— gourmet jelly beans!!
Stay tuned for our next Movies and Memories event in August!
Want to have a movies and memories event right in your own home?
Here are a few tips:
If you’d like to make this an intergenerational experience, select a movie or clips you all might enjoy.
Choose a time of day when the person living with dementia will have good energy.
Get your favorite movie treats ready.
Create times to pause and chat about what you’ve seen.
Print out simple jokes as a great way to spread the laughter.
If you wish, offer a surprise at the end, either something that reminds you to laugh or smile. And if you like sweets, our jelly beans were a huge hit! With all those flavors, you have a lot to talk about!
Josh Rice, a theatre maker and teaching artist, discovered the power of play in the dementia journey when he was still in graduate school. As part of a school project, he partnered with a senior living community on a therapeutic puppetry and improv-based program for people living with dementia.
Together, Josh and the seniors designed and made puppets, and created performances that included songs, personal stories, and comedy. As he worked with the new artists, he noticed people were using their puppets to tell stories. They expressed emotions and they enjoyed the chance to play and have fun. Staff applauded the participants’ short-term memory gains and tactile improvements.
“Plus, we were creating exciting work and performing for people,” Josh says.
One afternoon, a woman who was having a difficult day burst into the puppetry classroom. She was non-verbal but acted out aggressively in a way that could have potentially agitated others. As Josh and the students were rehearsing, she walked in and before she could disrupt the class, Josh made eye contact with her, and gently touched her shoulder. He quietly talked to her and invited her to join in or sit and watch. Within minutes she calmed down.
“I put a puppet in her hand and all of a sudden her language came back. It was like a switch had been turned on,” Josh says. This woman filled him with hope and inspired him. “I want people to understand that people who are living with dementia sometimes need us to be patient and keep giving them chances,” he says.
Being in the Moment
Josh knew the potential power of theatrical play and experimented with improv sessions for people living with dementia. The experiment worked.
“For improv, you have to listen and react,” Josh says. “The past or future doesn’t matter; it’s all about the present moment.”
He created a safe, nurturing, and creative atmosphere, offering structured improvisations, and invited his new improv team to play.
“They loved it and it was a thrill to watch them discovering new things and coming up with creative dialogues,” Josh says. “Play is an integral part of our lives and most of us need more of it.”
You know what it’s like, creating a program series for the first time. You try to think of everything, knowing that you’ve probably left something out. You hope plenty of people will attend and worry that no one will show up. The weather teases you, threatening snow or rain, thunder or wind. The “what if’s” line up, a mean group of scolders: “What if the elevator breaks? What if the speaker doesn’t show up? What if the snacks don’t arrive? What if the KC Memory Cafe doesn’t work!”
But, as most of us know, worry isn’t really that useful.
The debut of the KC Memory Cafe was beyond our highest expectations! On March 20, 2018, at 10:30 at the Plaza Library, the educators from the Kansas City Zoo showed up early, riding the elevator down to the lower level with their exotic offerings. The weather was perfect and a lovely group of 40 plus care partners and people living with dementia joined us, delighting in the delicious snacks. And they were even more delighted with the program, all of us laughing at the antics of the cockatoo, leaning forward to see the Vietnamese Tree Frog cozied in his glass aquarium, and petting the chinchilla, with a fluff of fur that felt like a cloud.
“I love this animal,” one attendee said, smiling at the blue tongued skink.
“This is the softest fur I’ve ever experienced,” said another, reveling in the chinchilla.
“That bird is so funny,” said another, laughing as the cockatoo bounced up and down, “dancing.”
After learning about the animals, we talked about our own pet memories. It was a wonderful morning and we can’t wait for our next Memory Cafe, on April 17, 2018.
Click here so you can experience the fun of the Cafe.
Want to join us on April 17 for our next Cafe? Here’s the scoop!
Weather Wonders: The Inside Story
Metereologist Karli Ritter Reveals Weather Mysteries 10:30 am on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Plaza Library Lower Level. Join us for the KC Memory Cafe, a free event dedicated to creating educational and social experiences for people who are living with memory loss and for their care partners.
Our Team — Standing: Emily Cox, April Roy, Carol and Dennis McCurdy. Sitting: Ron Zoglin and Deborah Shouse, Jennifer Walker, Mandy Shoemaker
Throughout our journey in Vietnam, we met a number of inspiring elders. These include an 87-year-old public letter writer in the old Saigon train station, a 67-year-old woman carrying baskets of pomelos and bitter melons, a beautiful 74-year-old gardener hacking at weeds with a machete, a 100-year-old matriarch in a farming family, and an 83-year-old village chief. Because the life expectancy in Vietnam has risen over the last 20 years, its people are living longer. Along with that blessing comes an increased chance of dementia. Neurologist Trần Công Thắng. MD, and his team, Nguyen Tudny Vy and Le Thi Yen Vy, are dedicated to working with medical professionals and community members, educating on dementia.
“Many people think memory loss is just part of normal aging, ” Dr. Thang told us, when we visited him in Choray Hospital in Saigon. “We want people to understand that dementia is not a regular part of growing older—it’s a brain disease.”
Twenty years ago, few people were discussing dementia in Vietnam. But now, it’s a vital issue for two reasons. First, the country’s life expectancy has increased from age 64 to age 75. Second, many families no longer have seven or more children; they have two to three offspring. This intensifies the burden for family caregivers.
Dr. Thang is a researcher, speaker, educator, and a founding member of the Association of Vietnamese Alzheimer’s Disease and Neurocognitive Disorders. Through his classes and diagnostic clinics, Dr. Thang and his colleagues offer people much needed information and resources. He is partnering with a local rehabilitation hospital in creating a day program for those living with dementia. The program will offer cognitive stimulation and social engagement for those living with dementia.
Person by person, Dr. Thang is helping healthcare professionals understand the behaviors and issues associated with dementia. He hopes to make life better for family caregivers and their family members who have memory loss.