Relationships

Six Secrets of Dementia Inclusive Holiday Cooking

 “Who prepared this delicious meal?” a friend asked during a holiday dinner.

I named my brother Dan, our head chef, first. Then I included the support team—myself, my mom, my daughters and nephews.

“Did I help?” Mom whispered as I passed her the mashed potatoes.

“You sure did,” I told her. ”You mashed the potatoes, put the marshmallows on the sweet potato casserole, and mixed the fruit salad.”

“That’s good,” she said. “I like to help.”

Our desire to help and contribute to seasonal celebrations doesn’t end with a diagnosis of dementia. It’s lovely to linger in the kitchen together, preparing food for the holidays. It’s even lovelier when you can adapt and enjoy dementia inclusive holiday cooking so that people of varying abilities can participate.

Rebecca Katz, author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook, sees food as a great equalizer, something anyone can enjoy regardless of abilities. Fixing a delicacy for someone offers a tangible and delicious way to give back.

Here are six secrets of iementia Inclusive holiday cooking.

  • Leaf through a favorite family cookbook or recipe box and use the pictures and recipes as a catalyst for conversation. Ask open-ended questions, such as, ”What does that brownie recipe make you think of?” “What do you like about the holiday season?”
  • Chose a time of day when you’re both rested.
  • Create a comfortable kitchen environment, by playing familiar seasonal songs you can both hum or sing along to. Reduce extraneous noise and distractions, such as a television in the background.
  • If you wish, take photos during the experience. That way, you can relive the adventure and share with family and friends.
  • Indulge in instant gratification, if possible, by sampling your work when the cooking is complete.
  • Even if the person living with dementia can’t help prepare food, he can still enjoy sitting in on the action and the conversation.

Whether you’re stirring a pot of orzo or dropping mint leaves into cool water, enjoy your time of creation and connection in the kitchen.

A longer version of this piece originally appeared on Joan Lunden’s excellent website:      Enjoy Dementia Inclusive Holiday Cooking.  Thanks to Sue Fitzsimmons, MS, ARNP, Judith Fertig, author of The Memory of Lemon, Kate Pierce, LMSW, Alzheimer’s Association Greater Michigan Chapter, and Rebecca Katz, author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook

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.

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7 Tips for Reducing Caregiver Isolation

Some years ago, when my mom was diagnosed with dementia, I didn’t know anyone else who was going through this journey. I felt very alone, even though I had a beautiful network of friends. I turned to writing to help me make sense of the situation. Eventually, I gathered the courage to share my personal essays with others, often through simply reading my stories aloud to friends and family. Being able to share my thoughts and feelings on this deeply meaningful dementia experience was so therapeutic, and it inspired me to reach out to other caregivers. Through my years as a family caregiver and through interviewing dozens of caregivers and experts in the field of dementia, I gleaned these 7 tips for reducing caregiver isolation.

Listening

When my friend Karen asked me to tell her more about my mom’s life, I was thrilled. I had been so immersed in my caregiving responsibilities, I had forgotten Mom’s fascinating adventures as a nurse in WWII, her worldwide travels, and more. Simply asking questions about the person who is living with dementia and listening avidly to the stories is a gift to the caregiver.

Visiting

“Your mother is so interesting,” my friend Jane said. Jane had offered to simply come to my house and have a short visit with me and Mom.  My mother was going through a period of repetition and I had heard her tale of the natural hot springs in Iceland at least 113 times. But watching Jane lean forward, ask cogent questions, and smile at Mom allowed me to appreciate Mom’s stories in a new way. These were cornerstones in my mother’s life and Jane’s interest reminded me what treasures they were.

Enriching

Mom had been a vibrant movie-goer, an avid opera lover, and an ardent museum enthusiast. But when she could no longer go out, I loved it when people offered to bring arts, culture, and the occasional dog, to us. Studies show that even indirect contact with animals reduces stress. Visits from small dogs and cuddly babies boosted both our spirits and helped us feel connected with our community.

Bringing over an art book and gazing at favorite painters together invited out the creative spirit and were a catalyst for open-ended conversation. Singing and playing music with others stirred up positive memories and filled us with happiness and well-being.

Exercising

So often, caregivers forget the power of fresh air and exercise. They forget the joy of sunshine and trees.  When they don’t have the steam to set out on their own, offering to take them on a stroll, a run, to a yoga class, or just to sit on a bench in a park, can offer moments of connection and renewal.

Noticing 

“What can I do for you?” my life-partner often asked. Frequently, I was so overwhelmed I had no answer. So he asked me concrete questions. “Do you need any errands run?” “Would you like me to make dinner?” “Are there phone calls I can help you make? Grocery shopping I can do?” Offering to do simple tasks helped me understand I did not have to soldier through this alone. Help was all around me and one of my spiritual journeys was learning how to receive it.


Inviting

It’s not always easy to stay connected with friends who are living with dementia and their caregivers, but it is so worth it. Even when my mother felt lost at social gatherings, she still enjoyed the energy of being around empathetic friends. Even when she didn’t understand every speck of conversation, she relished being around others and meeting new people. So did my father and so did I. Having friends reach out with invitations reminded us we were still part of our community.

Asking

Sometimes we don’t know what to say to our friends who are caregivers for those living with dementia. We don’t know what to do. Then it’s time to simply state the truth and tell them, “I want to be there for you, to understand what you’re going through. I want to support you, and I don’t quite know how to do it. Can you guide me?”
Chances are the answer will be a warm hug and a resounding, “Yes.”

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.

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A Thanksgiving Love Story: Bringing Home the Gravy

Thanksgiving changed the year I went vegetarian. I did not mind giving up the tender, moist turkey or the savory oyster-specked stuffing. But giving up the flavorful flow of mushroom-laden gravy was quite another thing. I watched enviously as my family ladled the luscious liquids over their mashed potatoes, turkey and stuffing. As I nibbled dryly on my carrots, green beans and salad, my lower lip protruded. I felt left out and deprived.

My brother, Dan, ever alert to the pouting big sister, came up with a solution.

“Next year I will make special vegetarian gravy just for you,” Dan promised.

Years later, that special vegetarian gravy has become one of my favorite Thanksgiving rituals. I begin fantasizing about it the moment the autumn leaves turn crimson. I know that in mere weeks, my brother and his family will arrive and I will have my yearly boost of family and feasting,

When my brother calls to tell me his travel plans, I write his arrival time and GRAVY on my calendar. The night he comes to town, we make the shopping list together, avidly discussing how many pounds of mushrooms we need for both the carnivore and vegetarian pots of gravy. I relish the early-Wednesday morning trip through the grocery store, where Dan and I and our children carefully select the foods we will be making the next day. We linger in the produce aisle, filling several sacks with gleaming white mushrooms and buying rustling yellow onions.

On Thanksgiving Day, Dan and I and other family members spend long, luxurious hours cooking. Dan mans the stove and I manage the slicing and chopping. Together we snap, peal, slice and dice the vegetables that will accessorize the turkey. I take special pleasure in wiping clean and slicing the mushrooms, then bringing my brother the brimming bowlful. When he has nodded his approval, I get out the old copper pot I bought in Germany in the early seventies. This year, Dan is improving his already amazing gravy. With his new immersion blender, he creates a rich base of caramelized onions, whose flavor surpasses that of the lowly vegetable cube. He adds in a little flour, then gentles the mushrooms into the onion broth. When the pot is bubbling with thickening nectar, he says, “Taste this and see what you think.”

I always think the same thing—“Wow, this is great.”

We are in a state of giddy and satisfied exhaustion by the time our guests arrive. We share grateful prayers with everyone and lay out the feast, including plenty of turkey-based gravy for the rest of the family.

Then comes the moment I have been waiting for: I sit down, my own personal pot of gravy poised by my plate. I cover the mashed potatoes, carrots, green beans, and salad with the aromatic concoction and I savor every bite. But more importantly, I savor the bounty, creativity, and love that have gone into this simple dish. Through this gravy, my brother speaks with his hands and his heart, saying: “I care about you and I am going to make sure you are not left out and that you have something fantastic to eat.”

For that and so much more, I am thankful.

…………

And now, if you’d like to create a Thanksgiving love story, bring home this delicious gravy.

Dan Barnett’s Chicago Style  Never-Enough-Mushroom Vegetarian Gravy

 

 

Ingredients

2 large onions (chopped)

2 pounds (or more) white button mushrooms sliced (can add some portabellas for enhanced flavor)

1 cup of white wine (of lesser quality)

Salt & pepper to taste

Olive oil

Directions

To create the gravy base:

In a four -quart pot, pour a thin layer of olive oil and turn the burner on medium.

Add the onions and sauté for10-15 minutes until they are caramelized (golden brown)

Add water until the pot is about half full.

Simmer slowly for 30 minutes.

Blend the onion water mixture using either an immersion blender or by transferring the mixture to a food processor.

Once you have the gravy base

Add the 2 pounds (or more) of sliced mushrooms, white wine and fill the pot with water until it is 3/4 full.

Simmer for 30 minutes and season to taste with salt and pepper.

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.

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Let’s Go to the Movies: A Dementia-Friendly Series

“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!

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.

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A Better Visit in the Land of Dementia

I’m always amazed at how a change of perspective can widen your heart and open your eyes. This is a story of how my friend helped me look at my mom in a new way and gave me me a better visit in the land of dementia.

Many weekday afternoons I stole away from my workday for a little rendezvous. I drove far into the southern part of the city.

There I hurried through the lobby, walked swiftly down the corridors and until I reached the locked door. There I punched in a secret code that allowed me into the inner sanctum, the memory care unit where my mother lived.

Walking into my mother’s room was always a surprise: I never knew who would greet me; a sweet curly-haired woman wearing a pink sweat suit and looking quietly compose? An anxious haggard woman who bent to pick up invisible lint on the floor and jabbered with invisible creatures lurking in the corners? Or an exhausted former beauty, lying across the single bed wearing an orange pullover and an adult diaper? My task was to appreciate every aspect of my complicated mother and whoever she was at the moment.

When my friend Maril asked, “Can I go with you to visit your mother?” I felt like a flutter of angels had gathered around me.

“Really?” I asked. “You want to see Mom with me?”

She did. I prepared her for our visit, describing Mom’s various moods. Maril did not seem shocked, worried or afraid. I told her about walking into the sometimes chaotic energy of the locked Alzheimer’s unit. She simply nodded as if this were an ordinary occurrence, which, for me, it was.

The day of our visit I felt lightness inside; I was eager to share my secret world with my friend.

Throughout the years, Mom has always been gracious with my friends and that day was no exception. Mom was sitting at a table in the dining room with a magazine in front of her. She looked pretty and serene and she smiled when we came in. We sat next to her and Maril took her hands.

“How are you Fran?” Maril said, looking into my mother’s eyes.

“Well I you know the scatter of it all,” my mother answered.

“I do know the scatter of it all. How are you getting along here?”

“Like a diamond in the sky,” my mother said.

As I listened to my mother and my friend talk, I was  so moved.

“Your mother is really something,” Maril said as we left the home. “I enjoyed seeing her. I’d like to go again with you sometime.” I was proud of my mother’s poetic and eccentric answers, proud of the way she engaged in the conversation. And I was grateful that my friend was able to appreciate my mother, listen to her words and intuit their deeper  meaning.

The visit was a huge gift for me. Seeing Maril engage with and appreciate my mom just as she was reminded me of the depths of my mother’s many talents and facets. This knowledge later helped me get through those moments when my mother seemed faraway or lost. My friend reminded me that there are so many ways to carry on a good conversation. All you need is attention, intention and love.

 

 

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.

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Connecting Through Reading Together: Wisdom from Anne Vize

Connecting through reading together has always been part of my life, starting with my mother reading me Mother Goose and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Even when Mom was living with dementia and could no longer track a Shakespearian play or a complicated novel, she loved holding books and she enjoyed hearing lyrical poetry. I was excited when I discovered the work of Anne Vize, Curriculum and education writer, instructional designer, and author of  ‘Reading in the moment – activities and stories to share with adults with dementia’ published by Speechmark.

Anne graciously shared her insights for this blog.

Connecting Through Reading Together: Wisdom from Anne Vize

Why is reading together so important?

Reading is a powerful but sadly often forgotten tool for supporting people who have dementia. Sometimes people worry that they might not read fluently enough, or they might make mistakes when they read, and so avoid doing it all together. But people have been reading together throughout time, and the idea of sharing pose, poetry and stories is an integral part of who we are as people. Just because someone has dementia does not mean they are unable to benefit from the joy of sharing a moment in time, with a great book or piece of text.

How do you get started?

Start small and keep the reading sessions to around 10-15 minutes to begin with. Plan ahead so you know what you are going to read and the sort of ‘voice’ you will use to read it. Some texts are more suited to a bouncy, entertaining voice while others are better suited to a slow, lyrical, smooth reading style. Pick the one that suits the piece you are reading, as well as the one that suits who you are as a reader.

How do you set the scene? 

Sometimes a sensory experience to begin with can be useful, or a brief discussion about the personal experiences of the listener that might relate to the story. You can make a link with seasonal activities such as Easter, Christmas, Passover, Independence Day or Anzac Day, but be aware that these festive or commemorative times might trigger particular memories for some people that might be unintended. Be sensitive and make sure you know a little about the piece you have chosen and the person you are reading to.

What kinds of stories/books do you suggest? 

Read something you are comfortable with. Avoid texts with long, complex sentence structures or multiple characters, as these can be difficult for the person living with dementia to follow. Focus on stories you can read in a single session, with a limited number of characters, and a plot that only moves in a forwards direction (not something that jumps from one period of time to another, as sometimes happens in the short story genre).

How do you use the stories as conversation catalysts? 

You can link what you read with a discussion, activity, or sensory experience, if it seems appropriate. For example, you could read the Australian bush poet Banjo Patterson and then combine this with a sensory experience looking at photos of the Australian bush, exploring plants, and leaves outdoors or listening to the sounds that horses hooves might make on the ground. If you are comfortable wearing a bush hat (called an Akubra in Australia) and a check shirt as you read some bush poetry, all the better!

Books, globe and glasses isolated on white background with a clipping path.

How do you make the experience meaningful and fun? 

Use your judgment and knowledge of the person you are reading to. Think about her needs and personal comfort and monitor how she is faring during your reading session. Think about sensory elements in the room that might interfere with your reading,  such as outside noises, distractions outside the window, people moving in and out with meals or drinks, and the like. These can all take away from your reading experience.

Reading has a tendency to create a feeling of peace, calm and harmony for people and can be a trigger for more conversation and interaction. Even if the person does not recall the reading experience after you have finished, they will retain the mood and feeling that the piece has created for them and this may well last for long after the actual reading experience has ended.

To learn more about Anne, please visit, https://www.facebook.com/pg/Anne-Vize-Writing-Services-126820110730385/posts/?ref=page_internal

Reading in the Moment: Activities and Stories to Share with Adults with Dementia

https://www.amazon.com/Reading-Moment-Activities-Stories-Dementia-ebook/dp/B073RPNFXZ/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1501074110&sr=1-

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.

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The Marvels of Misplacing

As I was worrying over this issue, which seems to plague so many people I know, I came across this piece I wrote several years ago. It reminded me to “seek” the creativity and joy hidden in every situation.  
Is it possible to have ten pairs of reading glasses and lose them all in the same afternoon?

“I don’t know where my glasses are,” Mom tells me. I bite my lip; she’s been misplacing things all day. We are supposed to be spending a day drawing and painting, trying to connect mom with the artist she used to be. We are supposed to bake cookies together and look through magazines. But I’ve been spending much of the time crawling around, looking under the sofa and chairs and between the cushions for the disappearing glasses.

“Let’s make our cookies. You won’t need your glasses for that,” I say.

“I need my glasses.”

           As I search, I wonder when it became a drudgery instead of a joy to find things. One of my favorite childhood games was Hide ‘N Seek. I loved being the Seeker, loved the surprise of finding someone in a tucked away, mysterious place. I had a special trick I used when I was “It.” I would close my eyes and say, “If I were Dan, where would I hide?” Then an image floated into my mind and I’d race to the hiding place. Half the time, I was right.

Do I still have “it?” I close my eyes and think, “If I were Mom’s glasses, where would I be?” The refrigerator comes to my mind. I rush into the kitchen and fling open the refrigerator door, only to see the usual chaos. But I’m hungry, so I reach for an apple. Behind the fruit is a pair of reading glasses, sprawled across the shelf.

Triumphantly, I take the glasses to Mom.

“These feel nice,” she says.

Not only has my mother reminded me of the importance of creativity, curiosity and play, but she also discovered a great summer time tip: chill your glasses and cool off your face.

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.

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They Yearned for Freedom

I often think of my grandparents, each of whom bravely made his and her way to America. They sought opportunity and they yearned for freedom. Freedom to be safe from persecution, freedom to practice their religion, freedom from stigma,  freedom to be their own true selves. The same things we all want. Here’s to living our dreams and to helping others live their dreams.

When I was growing up, in the 1950s, the Fourth of July was a true day of freedom. We had a huge family picnic at our relative’s house. The festivities included a swimming pool and was held in a neighborhood without fences, which meant we kids could run breathlessly through the yards, chasing each other, playing tag, baseball and hide ‘n seek.

But first, we politely greeted our relatives. Then our aunt said, “How about a drink?” to my parents. And “Kids, there’s sodas in the cooler.” Dad wanted Scotch on the rocks and Mom asked for gin and vermouth. Mom joined the women who were arranging the food on long picnic tables and Dad hung out with the men, who were grilling burgers and dogs.

That’s when the freedom began. My younger brother Dan and I, normally allowed to drink only juice and milk, eagerly surveyed the array of icy sodas and we both chose Grape Nehi.

Quickly we were swept into a game of tag. Some of the kids were already wet from swimming and others still wore shorts. Underneath our clothes, Dan and I had on our bathing suits and were ready to leap into the pool and get immersed in a game of Marco Polo.

The adults were busy with drinks and conversations and no one admonished us to be quieter, slower, or more polite. We were a band of glowing energy, sweating with the joy of freedom and racing to escape being IT. We were a burst of independence, throwing off our shorts and t-shirts and cannonballing into the pool, shrieking, splashing, and laughing.

After several hours, the women beckoned us over. We dropped onto the lawn and ate ravenously off drooping white paper plates loaded with baked beans, hot dogs, corn, cole slaw, and potato chips. Then we spit watermelon seeds at each other. Finally, we sated ourselves with rich chocolate cake.

By then, the fireflies flickered and glowed. My uncle handed out sparklers without even warning us to be careful. Those dangerous sulphury sparks thrilled us. We raced about, a sparkler in each hand, writing our names on the sky, streaking across the dewy grass, leaving a trail of smoldering light behind us.

At the end of the evening, my uncle set up the fireworks. We sat on blankets, this time with our families. We were smudged, sweaty, and stained with watermelon juice and dirt. I leaned against Mom and my brother snuggled next to Dad. As the fireworks spurted up into the sky, we pressed our hands against our ears, the noise and brilliant layers of light bursting around us.

“God bless America,” my father said.

“America,” the adults echoed, their voices hushed and reverent.

Only later, when I was older, did I realize the significance of the holiday: my relatives were all first generation Americans—and on that day, among others, they were grateful their parents had escaped the tyranny and religious persecution of Poland, Russia, and Hungary and had come to this welcoming land.

But that night, I was simply worn out from my own childlike version of independence. Dan and I leaned against our parents, fighting our tiredness, and let the sounds of freedom ring us to sleep.

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.

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Redefining Dementia and Focusing on Wellbeing

Several months ago, I was delighted to write an article highlighting some of the American leaders in dementia care. I will be occasionally spotlighting luminaries from that article who are redefining dementia and focusing on wellbeing.

A version of this piece appeared in Signpost Journal: Journal of Dementia and Mental Health of Older People. This excellent journal from Wales, UK, offers a variety of informational and inspirational articles. I am honored to be a contributor.

Redefining Dementia and Focusing on Wellbeing

Late every afternoon, Roger paces the corridors, pausing at the locked door, fiddling with the keypad, sometimes even setting off the alarm before he resumes his pacing. Instead of labeling Roger’s behavior as “sun downing,” Allen Power, MD, teaches practitioners to ask themselves: Which vital element of health and happiness is missing from Roger’s life: identify, connectedness, security, autonomy, meaning, growth, and joy. By doing this, Dr. Power is redefining dementia and focusing on wellbeing.

Dr. Power is a geriatrician and educator on transformational models of care, with a focus on people living with changing cognitive abilities.  He is also the author of two groundbreaking books, Dementia Beyond Drugs and Dementia Beyond Disease: Enhancing Well-Being.

He defines dementia as, “A shift in the way people experience the world around them.”

“I believe that most of people’s on-going distress is due to the erosion of one or more aspects of well-being, from the care environment, and/or the person’s cognitive changes. Imagine these domains of wellbeing as seven glasses being emptied. Start filling the glasses and notice the results.”

water glass

As Dr. Power trains and consults with memory care communities around the world, he sees meaningful results from this compassionate approach. Suddenly, Mary is not constantly calling out night and day. Bill is not hitting the aides when they take him to the shower. Roger is not setting off the alarm or trying to open the exit door.

“There’s no sure answer,” Dr. Power says. “You need to understand the individual and experiment until you reach the root of the problem. People may be looking for connectedness. They may feel anxious and insecure. They may be bored.”

If someone is repeatedly trying to leave the building, Dr. Power might ask: Are they feeling insecure? Are they feeling lonely and trying to reach someone they love? Are they yearning to connect with an important part of their identity, such as a beloved garden, horse, dog, or pick up truck?

Working toward an Inclusive Future

Dr. Power uses a strength-based approach to work on enhancing wellbeing. He encourages developing “brain ramps,” cognitive supports that help people move through the day in meaningful ways.

“With this positive approach, I can now look at a challenging scenario and offer insights,” Dr. Power says.

Beyond the care of the individual, Dr. Power believes in examining ingrained rituals and routines of institutionalized care, including all meals at a certain hour, with an aim of moving to a more individualized and meaningful mode of care.

“We can make mundane activities such as bathing or getting ready for bed more meaningful and relational than we normally do in long-term care,” he suggests.

“We need to support people instead of dehumanizing them,” he says. “We need to be inclusive and try harder to understand them.”

Dr. Power believes integration into society is a basic civil right.

“Imagine if people who lived with cancer, arthritis, or diabetes could only live with others who shared their medical condition. There’s a problem with seeing the disease instead of the people,” he says.

Dr. Power is contributing to a future where all communities are dementia inclusive and where dementia is just viewed as another way that people see the world.

For more about Allen Power, MD, internationally known geriatrician, educator, and author , please visit:

Website:  http://www.alpower.net

Dr. Power is participating in Dementia Action Alliance’s  Reimagine Life with Dementia Conference, June 25-27.

http://daanow.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/DAA-Conference_042817.pdf 

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.

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Passing Down the Punchline: A Father’s Day Retrospective

This blog is a tribute to my father, an honoring of my amazing brother, and a chance to share one of my dad’s favorite jokes. I welcome your favorite jokes and I wish you a lovely day of celebrating good fathers. Warmly,  Deborah

THE JOKES ON HIM

formica tableIt’s the fifties. My brother Dan and I sit opposite each other at the Formica kitchen table; my mother and father sit on each end.. We are eating Swiss steak, mashed potatoes and mushy-looking peas. My father is telling us about this sales call he had today. As he begins the story, Dan and I listen carefully. We want to see who can be the first to figure out if it’s regular boring adult conversation or a joke.

“So the man says to me,” my father says.

I screw up my mouth and nod at Dan. He nods back. It’s definitely a joke.

Some fathers like to train their kids by tossing them balls, wanting them to hone their catching and pitching skills. Dad tossed us one liners and puns, watching to see how quickly we caught on.

“My brother called the other day,” Dad would say and we all believed that Uncle Lou really had called until we were socked in the stomach with the punch line.

As we got older, Dan and I learned to keep our faces deadpan, to give my father no hope, no clue that we knew he was trying to be funny. We learned to sit still for several seconds after we had been surprised by a punch line and then, dissolve into  spirited laughter if it was really funny or loud groaning if it was really terrible.

Despite all this exposure to fabulous stories, great deliveries and rollicking punch lines, neither my brother nor I are joke tellers. I like to throw spontaneous one liners into conversation, but cannot remember a long involved story. My brother has always been laid back, offering at most an occasional bon mot.

motelFast forward to the nineties. We’re at a family reunion and it’s raining for the third day in a row. Twenty of us are crammed into my parents’ motel room eating a picnic lunch off drooping paper plates. My nephews squirm around, playing with various plastic weapons; my daughters and my niece sprawl languidly on one of the queen-size beds. Mom and I and a couple cousins camp on the other bed. Dan sits in a chair, reading a Richard Ford novel. My father paces in front of the television.

The noise in the room builds and my father stands still, then smoothes his shirt.  I can tell from his posture that he is going to tell us a joke. My father does not silence the room. He does not have to. Dan and I are always alert for the first sign of our highest role: audience. Dan looks over at his two sons and cocks an eyebrow. I look at my daughters and nod once. They instantly quiet.

“This rain reminds me of the time I took my dog to the movies,” my father says.

Dan and I grin at each other. There is no dog in the history of our family.

dog in theater 3“This dog was smart and loved for me to sneak him into the movies.” My father’s voice is so smooth and lulling, I almost believe this dog was part of our household. “One day I got caught and the manager made me promise to never bring that dog to the movies again. But one rainy night, I couldn’t resist.” He looks to Mom for confirmation and good sport that she is, she smiles back. “I sneak the dog into the movies. As we are leaving the theater the manager pushes his way up to me, pulls aside my jacket where the dog is hiding, and says in an accusatory voice, ‘So, how did your dog like the movie?’

‘ Oh pretty well,’ I answer. ‘But he liked the book better’.”

For a moment, the room is still. Then my nephew slaps his thigh and we all dissolve into laughter.

“And since we’re talking about dogs,” Dad says, taking his rightful place in center stage, between the television and the dresser. “Our next door neighbor has the most obnoxious dog.”

The jokes continue, each grander than the next.

Right after the one about the woman and the dry cleaners, my brother suddenly says, “I had this experience with my shoes the other day.” His voice is calm and plain. I smile, figuring the joke telling is over and we are moving into general conversation. Then I listen more carefully.

Dan tells a long and complex story– decidedly a bold mood in this charged atmosphere. My father has a patient expression on his face. My brother is articulate and calm, no histrionics, no mugging for the crowd. He may simply be telling an interesting story. I pray, “If he’s telling a joke, let him tell it well.” Dan stumbles over a word and I wring my hands. I feel like I am watching a tennis player’s first time on the court in an intense competition. I want my brother to win.

And then, Dan delivers the punch line. It’s smooth and elegant; sliding into us so unexpectedly, so easily that even Dad is caught off guard. Even Dad has that moment of hesitation and that flash of realization before he bursts into laughter and applause.

applauseThe applause dies down and my father segues right in. Dan folds his hands, content. I smile at him. I have read different accounts of coming of age. Yet here is one I have never seen before. My brother, emerging from years of quietly being in the audience, elegantly seizing the stage and then graciously giving it back. He has been heard. He has let us know, he is his father’s son.

“It’s stopped raining,” one of the boys says. “Let’s go out and play.” With a great roar, the boys take their swords and rush out to the nearby playground. The girls gather their purses and go to the quick shop for a diet drink. The cousins go off to do some shopping.

The room is quiet now, just my dad, my brother, my mom and I.

“I had no idea that you were such a great storyteller,” Dad says to my brother.

My brother shrugs. “After a while,” he says, “you catch on.”

dog in theater

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.

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