When I walk through the doors of the nursing home, I find my mother in her wheelchair, right in front of the medication cart, right behind the central nursing station, where nurses, delivery people, staff and family members congregate. Mom is bent over, her baby doll lying across her lap. When I walk up to her, I ratchet up my energy and widen my smile. I am preparing to clown her into a reaction.
Later my father will ask if I think she recognized me.
“No,” I will have to tell him. “She did not recognize me. But she did smile.”
The smile is important.
My hand waving and head bobbing does its work: Mom does smile, and I can tell she is in her own current version of a good mood.
“Music in the dining room,” the activity board reads, so I wheel her in that direction. An elderly man with a red and white trimmed Santa hat passes us in the hallway.
“Look Mom, there’s Santa,” I tell her.
Having been brought up Jewish, Mom never was all that enthralled with the Claus mythology and she has not changed.
A white-haired woman is in the dining room, busily setting up for the music program. Several patients are already gathered. The woman takes out a microphone, a boom box, an illuminated plastic snowman, and a small silver bell. I continue wheeling Mom down the far corridor, liking the sense of companionship I have from this movement.
As we stroll, a nurse carrying a plate of lettuce walks past us.
“She must have been a good mother,” she says, nodding at the way Mom is holding the baby. “She must still be a good mother.”
“She is,” I say.
I have never really said to my mom, “You were a good mother.”
Now I realize she was.
I can see that Mom is enjoying the ride. She loved movement when she was younger and was far more adventuresome than Dad when it came to airplanes, ski lifts, fast cars, and speedy boats. For her, biting breeze across the face was thrilling, not threatening. Until she became a mother, that is. Then she abandoned her pleasure in the heights and speed and concentrated on making sure we were slow, safe, and centered.
We roll back into the 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 from the memory care into the skilled care portion of the nursing home.
“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 smeared with butter and sprinkled with sugar and baked. 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 songs. She did not willingly go to Christmas parties. She let the holiday rush by her, like a large train, whooshing past, ruffling her hair and leaving her behind.
Now, I am singing Christmas carols to my Mom for the first time. She is smiling, though really not at me. But I am sitting beside her while she is smiling and that makes me happy. 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, nudging her, shaking a bell almost in her face, 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 nose, Mom laughs. For several minutes, Mom stays fixated on the scarlet nose, her face a miracle in pure enjoyment. I laugh too, so delighted to see Mom engaged and absorbed. Then, Thelda dances away and Mom’s face glazes back over.
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.
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.
September’s Memory Cafe featured a lively team of educators from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Using the arts to draw us together, they showed us the Chinese art form of painting pictures of bamboo. About fifty of us gathered in the the library’s spacious lower level. Colorful plastic cloths covered our tables, making it easy to distinguish our drawing paper and painting supplies. All of us eagerly dipped our special bamboo brushes into the ebony paint and made short pushing movements, replicating segments of the plant’s stalk. Then our educators showed us drawings of bamboo foliage and we experimented with wispy thin lines of leaves.
• To add extra meaning, connect the artistic activity with something in your partner’s past.
• Invite an intergenerational mixture of artists, from children, grandchildren, art students, and volunteers to join your partner and add encouragement.
• Create a variety of art-related activities, including visiting galleries or looking at pictures from magazines, as well as painting, drawing or various media.
“I’ve traveled the world. Our family moved a lot when we were young,” one of our guests told us, at our August Movies and Memories program. She and her husband bent over our world map and stuck stars on some of the many places they’d lived. Another guest sighed when he looked at the map and saw Vietnam. He had served in the military there. A couple talked about living in Berlin when the Wall came down.
Our Movies and Memories travel films included forays into Paris, Iceland, Capetown, and Seoul.
“It was relaxing just watching the scenes from Paris,” said Ah’Lee Robinson, director of the Kansas City Boys and Girls Choirs. He and his singers treated us to an inspiring concert, warming us up for the films.
“Oh dear, now I want to go to Iceland,” another guest said.
In between clips, we passed around exotic spices for everyone to smell. At the end of the movies and memories adventure, everyone took home a special “Passport” booklet, created by the library’s Emily Cox, so they could record impressions and memories. To experience the event, click here.
Here are some passport questions to discuss at home:
Share some travel memories.
What is one of the most beautiful places you’ve ever visited?
What’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled?
What country has the best food?
How many of the US states have you visited?
Thanks to our wonderful volunteers, Sharon and Julie, who brighten our events by bringing treats, making popcorn, and making everyone feel so at home.
Thanks to Craig Eichelman, State Director, AARP, for helping us spread the word about this program.
We are so grateful for the continuing support from the Kansas City Public Library. They are amazing champions for people who are living with dementia and their care partners. They also provide scholarships for hard-working people whose higher education has been interrupted by life circumstances. Their community programs benefit early readers, job seekers, and people who are new to KC. Ron and I use their books and other services every week!
Please join us for our next adventure — Moana. This movie is so inspiring and great for all ages.
- Arrange a few snacks.
- Invite a guest or two, if you wish. This is an intergenerational project.
- Put a brightly colored plastic covering on the table.
- Squeeze some acrylic paint into a palette. Or use tempura or water colors.
- Offer a choice between two brushes.
- Offer a choice between two canvases: a cardboard paper plate, a river rock, paper, or other.
- Relax and let the painting unfold.
- If your loved ones need a little help, you can paint together. Or you can rest their hand on yours, while you paint to get them used to the movement of the brush.
- Appreciate the art by commenting on the color, the design, the shapes. Don’t ask them to identify the art: enjoy it as it is.
- Weave conversation into your time together.
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
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?”
Please join us for our next events:
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.”
“Thank goodness for this program,” one of our Movie and Memories’ guests told us. “There are so few places Mom and I can enjoy going together these days.”
“Thanks for this cookie. I could really use a little nurturing today,” another said.
“My goodness, I was delighted to learn about this program,” another said.
“What a treat, to have these films and these treats for free,” a couple told us.
Everyone arrived ready for movie magic. One of our volunteers from the Alzheimer’s Association brought a generous tray of cookies and brownies to share with everyone.
“How will we ever eat all those cookies?” I wondered initially. Well, it turns out, we had a large and wonderful group of sweet sweet-lovers, who thoroughly enjoyed the films and the feast.
Our three Oscar-nominated shorts met with great approval and included Glas, Joe’s Violin, and Room on a Broom. When Michelle Niedens, Director of Education and Programs at the Heart of America Alzheimer’s Association, asked us all, “Which short would you have voted for?” it was between the inspiring documentary of a Holocaust survivor giving his beloved violin to a blossoming music student and the beautifully inclusive and tender animated Room on a Broom.
Save Sunday April 8 at 2:00 for our next Movies and Memories event and join us for this meaningful dementia and family friendly film series. To make sure you know about the series, sign up for the library’s newsletter at http://www.kclibrary.org/newsletter/special-events-signup We’ll be part of the Kansas City Film Festival—visit Kansas City FilmFest to learn more about their line up. Want to help us spread the word or have an idea for a great movie to show? Just email Deborah at email@example.com
An orderly group of five-year-olds walk into the dining room at Vernon Manor in Viroqua, Wisconsin. The residents are waiting for them. Each child goes up to an elder and introduces him or her self. Then Ingrid Constalie, AD-BC, CDP, Board Certified Activity Director and Certified Dementia Practitioner, talks to the assemblage about the importance of staying fit. The residents nod sagely: many of them are in their eighties and nineties and they exercise every day. But the days that the kindergartners join them are the best, a winning combination or children, exercise, and music.
The residents love teaching the kids the alphabetic movements to the iconic YMCA song. And the kids are a burst of giggles and wiggles as they fold their arms into wings, strut around, and teach everyone The Chicken Dance.
Ingrid’s focus is creating moments of joy, engagement, and connection.
Her intergenerational activities spark the residents and reduce the stigmas of aging and dementia by educating and informing local children, teens, their teachers, and other members of the community.
“This dancing and exercise exchange is simple, energizing, and very successful,” Ingrid says.
Sing-O at Bingo
Music Bingo offers middle schoolers a chance to work with Ingrid’s elders.
“This is about creating a good experience for your partners,” Ingrid coaches the children in advance. “You are their connection to the world.”
Ingrid plays an opening melody, using songs such as “Happy Trails,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Singing In the Rain.” Those who know the title shout it out. Often, partners confer with each other. The children help locate the song title on the bingo card and place a poker chip on each answer. Even people living with advanced dementia enjoy listening to music and being around the children.
Most of the time, the school children are chatty and at ease. But one girl was scared coming into the care community.
“I paired her with Helen, a woman deep into dementia,” Ingrid says. “Within minute, Helen had her arm around the girl and they were both laughing.”
Even children who act up at school are wonderfully behaved during the Bingo experience.
Creating Comparisons and Compassion
Recently, Ingrid orchestrated a project with a high school English class. They interviewed residents and did a comparison and a contrast. For example: “While Clara is getting out of bed with the assistance of staff, I am getting ready for school. While she wheels herself down a long hallway to a dining room, I am eating toast with my sister.”
The teenage journalists asked simple questions, like “What is your morning like?” “How do you spend your afternoon?” “How do you like to dress?”
The students wrote up the results and made booklets. One family was so inspired by the insights in the booklet, they later read parts of it at the woman’s funeral.
Ingrid’s intergenerational connections explore understanding, create empathy, and help create exciting new relationships.