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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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
Each woman would bring a batch of home-baked cookies, she wrote. We would then get to sample all the cookies and bring a bag of treats home to our families. I adored the idea of getting to bring my teenage daughters such an array of home-baked sweets. I envisioned a room filled with charming baskets of star-shaped sugar cookies, generously topped with red or green frosting. I imagined a jolly basket of Santa cookies and a fragrant ginger-scented array of reindeer cookies. I fantasized about thumbprint cookies, shaped like snowflakes and gooey with jam, and about silky buttery sandies melting in my mouth. And…
Then I realized the implication; these holiday cookies would not only need to be beautiful, creative, and delicious, they would need to be presented in festive and unusual ways. I had never really made anything other than the occasional clumpy chocolate chip, peanut butter, or oatmeal cookie. Why hadn’t my mother been a more glamorous baker, I fretted, as I rummaged in the refrigerator for something to make for dinner. She only made the plainest of cookies—date crumbs, peanut butter, and chocolate chip. As I boiled water for pasta and heated up the jar of marinara sauce, a number floated into my head and I dialed it.
“If I go to this party, will you help me with a recipe and a cute idea for presenting the cookies?” I asked my friend Judith, who was graced with five-star baking abilities.
“Of course,” she said. Judith’s aplomb would fit right in at such a gathering. Briefly, I wondered if she could attend in my place and just deliver my treats to me.
I told my daughters the good news—in several weeks we would have our own private holiday cookie festival. Since our sweets were usually made by some giant corporate entity, they were ultra-excited.
A week later, I received a thick packet in the mail. Judith had selected a number of “easy” recipes for me. I smiled as I looked over the pictures of adorable cookies with a cute holiday twist.
I frowned as I read through the baking instructions; each cookie demanded its own specialized pan, gourmet tool, thermometer, or esoteric ingredient.
As the day of the cookie party neared, I had no recipe, no cookies, no plan, and nothing good to wear.
That night at dinner, I said, “I don’t think I can go to the party.”
“Why not?” Sarah said sharply. She was thirteen and took promises and plans very seriously. Plus, she had a highly sophisticated taste for sweets and was looking forward to expanding her repertoire.
“I can’t just walk in carrying a paltry tray of blobby looking chocolate chip cookies.” My throat constricted and I wished I were a mother who could whip up a butterscotch soufflé from ingredients that just happened to be in my kitchen cabinets.
“Why not?” my older daughter Jessica said. Even during the holiday season, she kept to her black-themed wardrobe. She looked Gothic and serious as she said, “Everyone else will be all silver bells and fancy sprinkles. You will represent the good old- fashioned approach to the holidays; your simplicity will be refreshing.”
I took a breath and considered her words. If worse came to worse, I could always pretend I never saw those cookies before in my life.
That evening, my daughters and I made chocolate chip cookies and put them in a tin lined with aluminum foil. In honor of the season, I unearthed a shiny red bow to top the tin.
Walking into the party was like walking into a fairyland. Christmas lights lined the windows and a sparkling tree spread its branches into the living room. The dining room table looked like the December cover of Gourmet magazine. Stars, hearts, Christmas trees, snowmen, all the icons of the season were glowing with icing and sprinkles.
Some cookies were nestled in hand-made wreathes. Others shone from star-shaped or tree shaped boxes. A miniature set of reindeer surrounded a bejeweled fruitcake. A galaxy of colorful star-shaped cookies decorated a tiered silver-server. I admired each display while looking for a quiet corner where I could tuck in my tin of chocolate chips. I finally settled them between candy cane cookies and gingerbread Santas.
My hostess offered me champagne and the conversation flowed. Then she announced, “It’s time to gather the cookies.” She had a large silver gift sack for each of us and encouraged us to take several of each cookie. As I toured the table, I sneaked a look at my humble confection. What if no one took any? What if I had to bring the whole batch home? What if… The doubts daunted me as I filled my sack with delectables.
“Who made the chocolate chip cookies?” someone asked. The room quieted and my breath quickened. As the silence spread, I finally said, “I did.”
“What an interesting idea,” someone said.
“I never would have thought of it. It’s comforting. These cookies remind me of my mother and home.”
I smiled as I put three Santas in my sack and headed for the reindeer.
That evening my daughters and I had a magnificent holiday feast, consisting of cookies, cookies, and cookies.
“Here’s the strange thing, Mom,” Jessica said, as she leaned back, sated. “Your cookies are really just as good as any of them. Not as cute, but just as delicious.”
“More delicious,” Sarah said.
I smiled, thinking that about my mom’s cookies when I was growing up. Maybe there was something about the plain old recipes offered in the plain old way, so sturdy, so unglamorous, and yet so deliciously like coming home.
This weekend we were lucky to be around a lot of heroes—the staff and grantees of The Brookdale Foundation Group, which supports national Relatives as Parents Programs, along with Group Respite programs. We loved the sense of commitment and community we felt at this event and we also enjoyed learning from other speakers and the attendees. Here are the nine great things we learned from this weekend’s conference.
Kent Karosen, President and CEO of the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research, spoke about his new children’s book, Why Can’t Grandma Remember My Name? Written about the way the brain is impacted by dementia and the affects it has on children, the book is illustrated in brilliantly colorful art, created by children, juxtaposed with art by people who are living with dementia. To learn more, www.alzinfo.org
Frances Kakugawa, author of I Am Somebody, spoke of the powerful role poetry played in her caregiving role throughout her mom’s dementia journey. While scrubbing the floor after her mother’s bathroom accident, Frances thought, “There must be another poem here.” She decided to consider herself a poet-caregiver, rather than a struggling-caregiver. Reframing her image and her language helped her transform her attitude. You’ll enjoy visiting www.franceskakugawa.wordpress.com and learning more about Frances, her writing, and her many books.
Who knew you could have so much fun with poetry! Gary Glazner, for one, founder of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, who lead the whole group in a rousing call and response version of several popular poems. Gary added in music, movements, and stoked up our enthusiasm and our energy. We also created a poem together. You’ll enjoy using his ideas to deepen your communications and your connections. Visit www.alzpoetry.com and treat yourself to his book, Dementia Arts: Celebrating Creativity in Elder Care.
We were shocked and saddened to learn there are more than one million caregiving youth in our country, struggling to stay in school and keep afloat while taking care of ailing family members. Connie Siskowski’s organization, American Association of Caregiving Youth, provides support for these gallant middle schoolers and teens. To learn more about her program, visit www.aacy.org
How many of us take enough time to truly care for and nurture ourselves. Jane Barton, speaker, write, and listener, spoke eloquently of compassion fatigue, born of too much caring for others and not enough focus on self. We laughed, cried, and reminded ourselves of the importance of self-care. Learn more from her at www.cardinalife.com and see her book, Caregiving for the GENIUS: Understand the Journey from the Inside Out.
There were more amazing speakers, but we didn’t get to hear them because we were speaking all day Saturday, sharing two information-packed sessions of Connecting in the Land of Dementia and one session of our beloved The Hero Project. But just because we were teaching doesn’t mean we weren’t learning. Here are just a few of the tips we gathered from our participants.
As a way of adding meaning and purpose to life, one memory care day group created dog biscuits to donate to their local animal shelter. They stirred up a healthy mixture of organic ingredients, used cookie cutters, and delighted a lot of lonely pooches.
Another day care center helped a non-verbal resident create her own collage. One caring person watched carefully as this elder looked through a magazine, pausing at pictures of interest. Then the caregiver tore the photos that had intrigued the woman. Together, they glued them into a collage that the woman enjoys looking at often.
“Song titles inspire singing and conversation,” one participant told us. She shouts out familiar titles and someone in her memory care group usually sings the next couple of verses, with others joining in. This often sparks a conversation about the song.
The sense of community and generosity during the weekend reminded us again of why we love doing this work and of the importance of sharing things that work, things that don’t, and asking about things we wish we knew. Often, someone else has an answer for us, usually one of those quiet, but powerful, everyday heroes.
Ron and I both love helping people create better connections in the land of dementia. We are enjoying the second year of our meaningful Movies and Memories film series. Our next free movie events (and I say “events’ because there is so much more than just sitting and watching a film) are September 10 and November 5. Please tune into Kansas City Live on KSHB-TV on Thursday, September 7 during the 10:00 hour, for additional details.
I was delighted to be featured on Mike Good’s Together in This recent podcast. Mike is a gifted interviewer, with an authentic voice and a true commitment to help people stay better connected. I so enjoyed our time together and wanted to share the interview with you.
Recently, we have been connecting through creating laughing classes for caregivers, elders, people who are living with dementia, and others. We love going around to care communities and laughing with community members, family, and staff. Our next public laughter presentation is at the Landon Center, on October 18 at noon. It’s free and open to the public. If you’re in the Kansas City area, please come laugh with us. It’s great fun!
I was honored to have a book excerpt featured on Maria Shriver’s website. Maria does amazing work and her new book, Color Your Mind, is a visual and information treat, full of inspiring ideas.
I was thrilled when a story of mine was accepted by Chicken Soup’s The Dog Really Did That? The story honors Ron’s mom, Mollie, and her love for a dog named Biscuit. If you have a chance, read my story and so many other great essays in this inspiring book.
Finally, thanks to Mary Anne Clagett of Creative Forecasting, a publication for Activities Professionals. She is featuring a review of Connecting in the Land in their November issue. The publication brims with interesting ideas for creative and meaningful activities.
There are so many ways to Create Better Connections in the Land of Dementia, and as you can see, there is power in sharing stories, laughter, and the arts.
“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!
How do we keep our sense of connection and creativity through the caregiving journey? That was a question I often asked myself. I wanted to share this story of an extraordinary couple– artist, dementia advocate, and social worker Grace Townley-Lott and her husband, puppeteer, actor, and playwright, Spencer Townley-Lott. Both use art as a creativity catalyst in their work and throughout their lives.
Their elders inspired them. Grace and Spencer were teenagers when her grandmother and his great-grandmotherwere going through a dementia journey. The experience was difficult and impactful.
Grace became a social worker, specializing in older adults and learning how to communicate with people who were living with dementia, often through art.
“It’s incredible how the arts open people up,” Grace says. “Someone who hasn’t painted in 20 years picks up a brush and creates something beautiful. Someone who hasn’t spoken in ages delivers a zinger of a one-liner. Every day, I see how creative people are and the connections that are still possible.”
As Grace unfurled her work experiences, Spencer gained a new understanding of his great-grandmother’s last years. He used those insights to create a critically acclaimed play, Blossom. This play, which utilizes puppets, was funded by a Jim Henson Foundation Grant. It focuses on James Blossom, a retired painter who is living with dementia and his family’s changing relationships.
Caregivers often wonder: “How do we keep creativity alive?” Grace and Spencer were kind enough to share some ideas.
Engaging in New Endeavors: Grace
Try to be in the moment, despite your list of tasks. Respond to and validate emotions. Be willing to go with the flow so you can allow creative sparks.
Pay attention to facial expressions as you invite your loved one to engage. If you start dancing, do their eyes light up and do they laugh? If you offer watercolors and cue your partner to touch the brush to wet paper, does he respond with joy when the color blooms on the page? If you’re having a hard time getting your partner to take a shower, croon a song and waltz with him into the shower. If it doesn’t work, that’s okay, too! But if it does work, it’s a lovely and practical way to connect, create, and take care of physical needs as well.
Sometimes it takes reframing the situation to view the possibilities. An outside person or idea can often expand your thinking.
Creativity Tips for the Care Partner: Spencer
Sometimes, physical actions can help release tension to allow for more creative thinking. Deep breaths and stretching can help you loosen up at first. In the theater world, we start every rehearsal with a physical game or action to help us get focused and leave our stress at the door. Try wiggling and shaking your feet and hands, giving yourself a brief facial massage, stretching as tall as you can, and twisting gently left and right. You’re getting the blood flowing, leaving the worried part of you in the hallway, and getting ready to create.
Allow room for surprises. Try to set the tone by modeling joy and openness. Be willing to try again.
Connecting through Art: Grace
I love viewing art with people who have dementia. Art is so subjective, so there’s no wrong answer to the question, “What do you see?” You can take that first question and lead it along into a fascinating conversation, one question at a time, building a fulfilling conversation with an individual or a group.
In these art viewings, a discussion about a painting can tap into emotions that would otherwise be left undiscussed, or it could lead into a beautiful conversation about the person’s childhood, for example. You never know where the conversation will lead! This creates a failure-free situation where a person with dementia can excel and their answers are valued.
Connecting through Puppets: Spencer
Puppets offer a level of separation for the care partner. For people living with dementia, a puppet’s cues may be simpler to decode, dramatically expressing joy or sorrow. The puppet can place a hand on a shoulder and offer many opportunities for sensory engagement.
Puppets can also encourage intergenerational play, creating connections between family members who may be unsure who to communicate with their loved one with dementia.
Keeping Your Creative Flow: Spencer and Grace
“Creativity is inherent in all of us,” Spencer says. “It’s a muscle you can strengthen. Be patient with yourself. The first day, you can only do one push-up. The second day, you can accomplish two or three. That’s what creativity and artistry feels like. Start small. You are laying the foundation. And it gets easier.”
“Be present and be ready for anything,” Grace says. “By asking your loved ones for advice, truly listening to them, and just being with them, you can form beautiful interactions throughout life.”
To learn more about Spencer, visit
To learn more about Grace, visit
Grace is the Director of Truly Inspired Outreach and Education for True Care Home Health.
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.