The group pauses in front of a large contemporary sculpture, depicting a preacher standing before his congregation at a small country church. They walk around the piece, noticing the pews, the organist, and the variety of parishioners, and chatting as they view. Then they settle into chairs and co-facilitator Esther Smith asks: “What is one word that comes to mind when you look at this piece of art.”
“Boring,’ says one woman.
“What makes it boring?” Esther asks.
“It brings me back to my childhood, when I was stuck in church for hours,” she answers. “I was so bored.”
A few others nod. Someone asks, “When was this made? Where is it from?” and the conversation about the art continues.
Every month at the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, Teaching Artist Esther Smith guides a group of care partners and people living with dementia on a 90-minute gallery exploration called Musings Together.
“It’s a light-hearted, interactive experience,” Esther says. “We go at a slow pace, seeing only three to four works each time. We want people to have a comfortable, personalized experience with art.”
The open-ended conversation brings out people’s stories and ideas. Sitting in front of Giovanni Bellini’s Madona and Child, Esther asks, “What lines do you notice in this painting? Trace them in the air with your hand.”
After people trace their lines, she asks, “What line was most interesting to you?” That question might lead into a discussion of what makes this painting different. Then Esther might invite the group to pose like the picture. She might say, “How would that baby’s head feel in your hand?”
“These simple prompts launch us into deep conversations,” Esther says. She and her team are experimenting with expanding the sensory experience, including bringing out oranges when they’re gazing at a still life of fruit and letting each guest hold and examine the orange. Esther also invites people to occasionally sketch an aspect of a drawing that appeals to them, using a drawing pad on a clipboard.
“ A number of our participants have never been regular museum-goers. Now they feel comfortable here and come more often,” Esther says. “Developing a new community of friends and an expanding interest in art enriches their lives.” #
Want to look at art with someone who is living with dementia?
If you’re visiting a museum, focus on a gallery with 3-4 large and interesting pieces. Ask a docent for advice, if needed. If you’re at home, give yourself plenty to time to comfortably view a few works of art on-line or in books.
- Bring a folding chair, so you can sit.
- Chose a time of day when your partner is energetic and the gallery is relatively quiet.
- Have fun just noticing the aspects of the piece. You might invite comments on colors, textures, familiar figures, objects that seem odd to you, and other aspects.
- Ask open-ended questions, such as, “What does this piece make you think of?” “What do you like about this piece?” “How do you think that main guy feels?”
When attention wanes, move onto something else, including a lovely coffee or tea break.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together and Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
The table was spread with an array of Czech delicacies: apple strudel, special sandwiches with flowers of ham atop fresh baguettes, a bountiful tray of strawberries, grapes, and apple slices.
“This is the way we welcome people here in Prague,” said Lucie Hajkova, social worker and coordinator of respite care for the Czech Alzheimer’s Society.
Ron and I were visiting the Gerontological Centre and the Czech Alzheimer’s Society, which are both housed in the same building. The two organizations work together to offer clients everything they need, from psychological counseling, to memory testing, to social work services, to healthcare. We came to learn and to present a laughter yoga session.
We gathered with staff members around the table to learn about the center, which was started in 1997 by Iva Holmerova, MD. along with Hana Janeckova, PhD. Hana was putting together training materials for caregivers when she was contacted by Alzheimer’s Disease International. They wanted to know more about her work and they invited her to an international conference in Jerusalem. That conference was a turning point. Hana left it inspired and determined to help Czech families that were dealing with dementia. She contacted Iva and both saw the need to offer education, diagnosis, support, and care for people living with dementia and their families in the Czech Republic. Today, both centers are flourishing.
We were impressed with the dementia services they offered, which included home care for people who need help with bathing, dressing, eating, exercise or more. The building holds a respite center. When families need renewal time, or when people living with dementia need extra care or healing time, they can stay in respite for up to a month. The Centre also hosts a day program that offers a variety of activities in a homey and comfortable setting,
Even more impressive than the Society’s services were its staff. Each had a passion for this work, a love for those who are living with dementia, and a compassion for their families.
We had a wonderful time sharing a laughing session at the day center—our first international facilitation. We sat in a beautiful circle of people living with dementia, staff, family, and friends. We couldn’t have done it without our translator, Eliska, who captured the energy and essence of what we were saying. And once we all started laughing, we were beyond the constraints of language. Click here to experience a bit of laughter in Prague.
Eliska Brouckova, psychologist, consultant/advisor for people with dementia and their care givers
Martina Matlova, Director
Petr Veleta, PhD, dancer, dance therapist
Marketa Splichalova, psychologist, consultant/advisor for people with dementia and their care givers
Eva Jarolimova, PhD, psychologist, consultant for people with dementia and their care givers
Hana Janeckova, PhD, co- founder of the Czech Alzheimer Society, head of governing board of Czech Alzheimer Society, University teacher, researcher
Lucie Hajkova, social worker, coordinator of respite care in homes of people with dementia.
When care partners gather and trade stories and ideas, there’s usually magic afoot. We felt that magic when we met with a group of family and professional care partners to celebrate great connectors throughout the dementia journey. We presented engaging ideas using music, nature, laughter and more.
Lisa Vetter, Director of Healthcare Sales & Marketing, Santa Marta Senior Living Community, invited us to speak at an event announcing the community’s new care partner support group. The group is led by Jennifer Walker, RN, BSN, Clinical Community Liaison, Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care. Jennifer also facilitates the KC Memory Cafe and she is compassionate, informed, and smart. Most importantly, she has a fantastic sense of humor.
Ron and I shared ways to stay connected through singing and music, looking at works of art together, bringing nature indoors, and laughing. And our audience shared their experiences as well.
Here’s a story about nature that inspired us.
Marcie took her mom, who was living with dementia, on a fascinating monthly outing: they drove out into the country to look at the full moon. Her mother didn’t talk much anymore, but she loved seeing the night sky and gazing at the magnificent moon. One evening, as the moonlight spread over the car, Mom began singing, When the moon comes over the mountain. Marcie had never heard the song before and her eyes filled with tears at hearing her mom sing so strongly and clearly.
Here’s a story about the power of familiar music. Karen’s mom was a devout Catholic, living with dementia. Though there were many things she didn’t remember, including her daughter’s name, when she attended Sunday mass, she melodically sang every word of every hymn.
We loved sharing with this group of dedicated and compassionate care partners, who were all seeking ways to stay connected.
Here’s an extra tip from Connecting in the Land of Dementia: When you want to boost energy and lift spirits, add a splash of laughter into your life. Look at a clock and say, “We’re going to laugh for 30 seconds,” and start ha ha ha-ing. Or pretend you’re talking on the phone and hearing a hilarious joke. Or warble out the Ha Ha Chorus by singing the Happy Birthday song in “ha ha ha” syllables.
In The Music Man, people flock to hear about the idea for a band. They imagine the shiny instruments, the colorful uniforms, and the scruffy boys in their small Iowa town transformed into revered members of a marching band.
In the Movies and Memories showing of this iconic film, life imitated art. During intermission, the Dirty Force Brass Band marched down the aisles of the Truman Forum, playing a zesty jazz number. People from the first floor of the library raced down the stairs, wanting to get closer to the music. Many of them stayed to watch the second half of the movie!
This was the longest movie we’ve shown at our series and it was a big success. What a treat to see it on the big screen and to enjoy a very young and adorable Ronny Howard as Winthrope, the agile and the charismatic Robert Preston wooing the melodic Shirley Jones, as Marian the Librarian. And is there anything better that seeing a movie partially set in a library while you’re sitting in a library.!
You can click on this link to get the flavor of the event:
“We loved the music,” one family told us.
“This is my daughter’s favorite musical,” a mom told us, smiling at her four-year-old daughter.
“All this is free?” one of our guests said, relishing her popcorn and cookie.
Every two months, the Movies and Memories treats the Kansas City community to a dementia and family friend film, along with live music and delicious snacks, and a surprise at the end. Everyone who attended was excited to take home various kinds of colorful noise makers. #
Please join us for our next dementia-friendly events:
Mark your calendars for these upcoming events:
Tu 17 – Memory Café: Tea Party
Tu 21 – Memory Café: Nick Haines from KCPT
Su 26 – Movies & Memories: Around the World / KC Boys Choir
Tu 18 – Memory Café: Nelson-Atkins
Tue 16 – Memory Café: Wornall House
Su 21 – Movies & Memories: Moana, uke players, hula dancers
* Wed 14 – Memory Café: Dog & Pony & Pig Show
Su 9 – Movies & Memories: holiday movie shorts & cookie decorating
Tu 18 – Memory Café: Santa & Symphony
Thanks to all our teammates who help make these gatherings happen:
The Kanas City Public Library
The Alzheimer’s Association
The Creativity Connection, Deborah Shouse and Ron Zoglin
Kansas City Hospice and Palliative Care
Arts & Aging KC
Prairie Elder Care
The Villages of Jackson Creek Memory Care
Dennis and Carol McCurdy, Community Volunteers
- 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?”
Please join us for our next events:
“Here’s some medication,” the neurologist told Mike Belleville. “See you in six months.” The doctor stood up to leave, but Mike just sat there, exhausted from months of struggle and confusion, worn ragged from all the tests and consultations. For months, Mike, age 52, had been “hiding under a rock.” His mind wasn’t working right and he worried he’d make a mistake, so he withdrew from his busy life. Now, he was numbed by the diagnosis he’d just received; younger onset Alzheimer’s.
Those three words seemed insurmountable.
“My wife and I had no connection to support services and we had no idea what to do next,” Mike says. “We felt so alone.”
Without his job as a Senior Telecommunications Technician at Verizon, his community volunteer projects, and his hobby of photography, Mike sank into a depression. After several months, his wife found a program at their Alzheimer’s Association that focused on finding a purpose and living well with dementia.
“From meeting others who had the diagnosis, I realized, I can still enjoy, do, and learn,” Mike says. “But more importantly, I realized that I have a voice. I want to use that voice for as long as I can.”
Even though he had no experience with public speaking, Mike plunged in and became an outspoken advocate, visiting Washington D.C., and speaking at a number of dementia forums.
“Somehow, I was comfortable discussing dementia,” he says. “Even when I was interviewed in front of 1300 people, I felt like I was sitting in a coffee shop, talking to a friend.”
He joined the advisory board of the Dementia Action Alliance and expanded his speaking and advocacy work.
Cooking Up New Skills
Mike was frustrated that he could no longer contribute financially to his household. So he searched for ways he could help around the house. He volunteered to do laundry and soon learned he did not “know when to fold ‘em.” Then he made a discovery: he could combine his desire to learn, his creative curiosity, his love of technology, and his desire to help through the joys of cooking.
Prior to dementia, hamburgers and hot dogs comprised Mike’s culinary repertoire: he could grill with the best of them.
“Thank goodness for Pinterest and YouTube,” Mike says. He searches for recipes on-line, then scans YouTube for a demonstration video, which he watches several times. He uses an App called Paprika, so he has the recipe in front of him. Then, Gordon Ramsey style, he lines up all his ingredients.
“Through trial and error, I learned to put away each ingredient after I added it in,” Mike says. “That way, nothing gets used more than once.”When his wife returns from work, they put the dish on the stove and cook the rest of the meal together.
“She’s very appreciative of my new talents and I’m happy to be exercising my brain and nourishing our family,” Mike says.
Putting Purpose to Technology
Early on, Mike volunteered at a local senior center, starting a technology group called, Mike’s Google Gals. Once a week, he helped people with their phones, tablets and computers. When he and his family moved, he volunteered to host a free Tech Corner on Dementia Action Alliance’s website, offering his problem solving skills as needed. He helps people get on line so they can participate in a vibrant virtual community.
“I get just as much out of this as I put into it,” Mike says. “The more I stay active, the better I am.”
Mike and his wife share an electronic calendar, so she can support him with his schedule. His vibrating smart watch offers reminders of meetings and appointments.
“Because I’m wearing the watch, I don’t have to worry about misplacing it and missing a text or an email,” Mike says.
Mike envisions home automation devices extending beyond moderating lights and temperature.
“I have an issue with anxiety,” Mike says. “I would like a wearable devise that automatically detects my anxiety. As I become more stressed, the device could turn on my TV, which would be tuned into a soothing video of my wife talking to me. Or it could turn on a calming musical playlist.”
Mike also envisions sensors that would alert his wife if he turns on the stove or walks out the front door. He would like to help develop these types of products.
Recipe for Living Well with Dementia
Mike views living with dementia as his new career.
“I’m using the same skills I honed in my earlier career,” he says.
His prescription for living well includes staying socially engaged, finding a purpose, and helping others.
At first, Mike saw his diagnosis as the end, but now he’s busy living. He has the Alzheimer’s logo tattooed on his arm with the motto, “Live life today.”
As Director of Operations for a national call center, Paulan Gordon’s work required an intense travel schedule, detailed project management skills, and a rigorous adherence to industry standards. So when she started feeling confused, she attributed the struggles to stress. Some days, she felt so overwhelmed that she locked herself in her office and called her husband to come pick her up early.
She was asked to step down from her position. Initially, the loss of her career was both financially and emotionally staggering. Suddenly, she had no purpose, no income, and no peer group. She had to reinvent her life.
In 2012, at the age of 57, Paulan was diagnosed with vascular dementia. After a period of uncertainty, Paulan began using her interpersonal, communication, and management skills and volunteering as a mentor and a dementia advocate.
“I’ve learned there’s a lot more to life than success in business,” she says.
When she was working, Paulan was so busy she didn’t have time to build friendships. Now, through her mentoring, she has developed deep connections with others who are living with dementia.
“The relationships you create within the walls of dementia are so intimate,” Paulan says. “People talk very openly about their personal problems and challenges. I feel enriched, being part of these conversations and having such close friends.”
Her work as a dementia mentor has also given Paulan a sense of purpose.
“I work with four people and all of them appreciate my phone calls and my caring. That appreciation boosts my spirits,” she says.
Through her mentoring and advocacy work, she’s met doctors, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and others who have applied their intelligence and skills to living successfully with dementia.
Speaking out for Adaptation
When Paulan gave business speeches, her hands grew clammy and her mouth dry. She battled nervousness and worried about getting facts wrong and making errors.
“Now, I don’t get very nervous,” she says. “I’m speaking from my heart about things close to me, so I can’t make a mistake. Plus, I’m motivated: I want to help others and I want people to understand the truth about dementia.”
Letting Go of Difficulty
“You’ve asked me that question five times already,” Paulan’s husband says.
“Then it must be really important,” she answers.
Paulan is happy she can laugh at trying situations. She has let go of things she can no longer do. She stopped driving because spatial relationships were difficult for her. Paulan knows she’s forgetful and sometimes repeats herself. Her husband and family take that repetition in their stride. She’s also trained her family not to interrupt her when she’s talking, because she can easily lose track of what she was saying.
“My husband doesn’t call attention to my deficits and I forget I have them,” she says.
Proactively, he reminds her about meetings and appointments. She uses a big planner and makes detailed notes, including instructions on how to sign onto the internet, and notes on various conversations.
Changing Reading and Money
Paulan is constantly using her creativity to solve problems. She was an avid reader, but her memory retention has diminished and understanding complicated novels with dozens of characters became a challenge.
“If I put down a book, I can’t remember what happened at the beginning,” she says. “Although there is an upside to the situation: I could save money reading the same books over and over again.”
She temporarily put down her tomes and started reading short stories and magazines. This allowed her to continue her beloved hobby without so much frustration.
She also worked around her reduced mathematical abilities. When she shops, she hands the cashier an extra dollar, so she doesn’t get overwhelmed by counting out coins.
“I hope people are honest when they give me change,” she says.
Stirring up her Spirits
“I don’t worry about dying” she says. “I basically feel positive.”
Many people have a distorted view of dementia. With her speaking and writing, Paulan helps people understand the truths of the disease.
“I like sharing ways to support friends and loved ones who are living with dementia,” she says. “This information helps prevent decline and dramatically increases the well being of both care partners and people living with dementia.”
Meanwhile, Paulan’s advocacy and mentoring work has filled her life with depth, friendships, creativity, and purpose.
Once again, Robert Bowles, Jr., age 65, could not sleep. Since he’d been diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia two years ago, his nights had randomly been plagued with terrifying hallucinations and vivid nightmares that he often acted out. He was exhausted, depressed, and anxious. Plus, he had had to sell his beloved pharmacy and prematurely end a meaningful 40-year career as the community’s trusted pharmacist.
That dismal night, Robert awoke at 1:00 a.m. and dragged himself into his office. He felt a horrible heaviness in his heart
and he cried out to God.
“God,” he said, “Take me home. I don’t want my family to go through this disease. I can’t endure this any longer.”
As he sank into a chair, he heard a voice, as strong and clear as if someone was sitting right beside him: “Use your five life principles for people who are living with dementia.”
Robert slapped his hand onto his forehead and said to himself, “God is not through with me yet.”
And that realization filled him with hope.
Amending His Purpose: The Five Principles
Love, care, education, encouragement, and hope: these were the principles Robert adhered to with his work, his family, and in his community.
“Understanding that those same tenets could help families affected by dementia was a transformational experience that gave me purpose,” he says.
Robert believes, “People living with dementia need to be encouraged to maintain purpose. While your original purpose may not be possible, you can always modify your vision and continue to live with depth and meaning.”
Throughout his career, Robert was always purpose-driven and outcome-oriented. Along with those qualities, he infuses his current advocacy and mentoring work with compassion. Early on, he realized, “People don’t care what you know; they want to know what you care about.”
Standing up for Personhood
“I made a decision that I would not let dementia define who I was,” Robert says. “ I’m still Robert. I believe in personhood.”
He also believes in learning, overcoming fear, and trying new things. Robert serves on the Georgia Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias (GARD) State Plan Group. He is involved with the Lewy Body Dementia Association (LBDA) and works with the Dementia Action Alliance and the Dementia Spotlight Foundation. He qualified as a trainer at the Rosalyn Carter Institute and he completed the coursework to became a Certified Eden at Home Associate. Robert has also been trained in Dementia Beyond Drugs, which teaches ways to decrease behavioral expressions without medications.
Recently, a lady asked him, “How are you able to speak when you have dementia?”
Robert answered, “When I sit there waiting to speak, my mind is all over the place. I wonder, ‘Will I be able to speak, or is the train going to jump the track?’ Then I tell myself, “I am going to have fun.”
He has fun and he speaks from his heart. Audiences connect with him.
Recently, Robert told his neurologist, “I don’t have time to die.” Every year, he typically speaks to more than 100 groups, sharing his story, breaking down stereotypes, educating people on dementia, and inspiring people to live with heart and purpose. ##
Practical Tips from Robert
Adopt the ASAP philosophy: Acceptance, Socialization, Attitude, and Purpose. Accept your disease and know you are not your disease. Keep and expand your social network. Live with a positive attitude. Be fueled by a purpose. ASAP was one of the touchstones that delivered Robert from “the Valley of Darkness.” “Both care partners and people living with dementia benefit from ASAP concepts,” Robert says.
Prepare for your doctor’s visits. As a practicing pharmacist, Robert noticed many people did not prepare for medical visits and therefore didn’t get the information they most needed. He keeps a list of his symptoms. As changes occur, write them down. Before the visit, select your top three issues. Hand this list to the nurse to give to the doctor. “You save time and get better outcomes,” he says.
For more information about Robert, please visit:
For more information about living well with dementia, please visit Dementia Action Alliance, https://daanow.org
We roll into the memory care facility’s dining room just as the show is ready to start. The singer, Thelda, kicks off her shoes and presses play on the boom box. Above the cheerful sound track, she sings Jingle Bells. She dances across the room with the remnants of ballroom steps. She stops in front of Mom and sings right to her. She gets on her knees, so she can look into Mom’s eyes, and keeps singing. Mom notices her and smiles a little.
Thelda moves on, singing to each of the patients gathered around, so intent on making a connection that she often forgets the words.
“Is it all right for your Mom to come to Christmas holiday events?” the activity director had asked me, when Mom moved in.
“Yes, I’d like her to go to any activities. She likes the extra energy.”
I think Mom would approve of my decision, even though she has never celebrated Christmas. Growing up, her immigrant mother held on to the Jewish spirit of her home, kneading dough for Friday evening challah, observing each holiday and prayer period in her own way. Some orthodox women followed the religious law that commanded a small piece of the dough be burned as an offering to God. My grandmother was poor; she did not believe in burning good food, regardless of tradition. So she sacrificed a portion of the dough to her youngest daughter, my mother Fran. She created a “bread tail,” leftover dough that she baked, then smeared with butter and sprinkled with sugar . When Mom used to talk about her mother, she always mentioned this special treat.
Even when I was growing up, and we were the only Jewish family in our neighborhood, my mother still did not sing Christmas song. She let the holiday rush by her, like a large train, whooshing past and leaving her behind.
Now, I am singing Christmas carols to my Mom for the first time and she is smiling. She has moved beyond the place where the religions are different, beyond the place where she wants to separate the dough and make a sacrifice for tradition. Her new tradition is anyone who can make her smile.
With each song, from White Christmas, to Silver Bells, to Frosty the Snowman, Thelda moves back to Mom, tapping her, acting sillier and sillier. Each time, Mom lifts her head and widens her mouth for a second.
For her finale, Thelda puts on a big red nose and sings Rudolph. When she dances in front of Mom with that scarlet nose, Mom laughs, her face a miracle in pure enjoyment. I laugh too, so delighted to see Mom engaged and absorbed.
Two weeks from now, I will bring a menorah and candles into my mother’s room. My father and I will have a short Chanukah ceremony with Mom. She will pick at the shiny paper covering the Chanukah gelt (chocolate candy disguised as money). She will slump over in her chair. But she will come back to life when she sees me, her only daughter, wearing a big red nose as I light the menorah.Here’s to a meaningful and fun holiday season.
I look forward to connecting with you when I resume blogging in early January.
“Let’s go to the movies,” my dad often said to my mom. My parents would have loved our Movies and Memories series, now starting its second year. We are excited to announce our partnership with the Kansas City Boys Choir and the Kansas City Girls Choir this season. Some of their outstanding performers will be joining us at each event.
Already, the series is making a difference in a variety of ways. Additional libraries in Missouri and other states are interested in implementing the program. And our library is so committed to becoming more dementia-friendly that it is having special training for its staff, courtesy of the Alzheimer’s Association — Heart of America Chapter. Please share this invitation with those who would enjoy it. And if you’re in the Kansas City area, please join us. It’s free and open to all. Let’s go to this movie series!