“Dad always liked a big Father’s Day celebration,” my friend told me. “But now he’s deep into dementia; I’m not sure he would notice.” When Ron’s dad Frank relaxed into dementia, Ron and I often struggled with how to approach Father’s Day. Even though Frank didn’t know what day it was, we still wanted to honor Frank as a father. Here are four fabulous ways to celebrate when Dad has dementia.
Reminiscing over Favorite Foods
We brought in a meal created from some of Franks’ current favorites and some gems from the past. Frank’s wife Mollie made her world-famous brownies and legendary rice pilaf. We bought cooked steaks and baked potatoes and as we ate, we talked about meals past. Inspired by the familiar tastes, smells and textures, Frank recited one of this favored old phrases: “I’m cool to other women but I’m hot tamale (Hot to Mollie.)”
Naming His Tunes
Frank and Mollie liked to dance occasionally and for one celebration, we printed out song lyrics and sang Frank and Mollie some of their old favorites. We didn’t sound like Sinatra or Fitzgerald as we warbled “It Had to be You,” or “Stardust” or “Three Coins in the Fountain” but we did sound sincere!
Ron and I created a HERO Project for Frank, a story-scrap book that incorporated highlights and photos from Frank’s life, along with a meaningful storyline. We also created one for Mollie. We read the HERO Projects with Frank and Mollie, using the stories as conversational catalysts. Frank enjoyed the experience; we enjoyed reading aloud with Frank and remembering shared experiences.
Celebrating Special Qualities and Life Lessons
As we sat together, we talked about some of Frank’s many stellar qualities, which included his easy-going nature, his natural charm, his entrepreneurial spirit, and his willingness to try new things. “Did I really do that?” Frank asked, as Ron described the bowling alley Frank and his brother owned and operated. “You did,” Ron said.“That was really something,” Frank said.
Frank’s comment summed up our Father’s Day celebration: it was really something. Just being together was wonderful. And taking time to really celebrate Frank with a tender mixture of food, photos, stories, and conversation was pure magic.
For more ideas on Naming His Tunes, please visit the exciting MusicandMemory.org
Creating Low-Cost, Engaging Activities
Alice looks blankly at the magazine as Kimberly Clark turns the pages, pointing to various pictures. “What do you think of this? Or this?” she asks, pointing to a rose, a table set for tea, a bundt cake. When Kimberly touches a picture of a train, Alice smiles. Although Alice, who is living with dementia, can no longer tell her own stories, Kimberly has heard tales of her adventurous past. When Alice was a restless young woman, she and her new husband occasionally jumped on a freight train and took a ride. This photo will be the centerpiece of the collage they are making. As Program Coordinator at ARC Jackson County, a lifespan respite program in Medford, Oregon, Kimberly is an expert at creating low-cost, engaging activities for people who are living with dementia.
Creating collages is easy, inexpensive, and relaxing. Medical offices will donate their old magazines and she also collects periodicals from friends. If Kimberly knows her client’s family stories, she seeks magazines that have illustrations relevant to them. She lays out a variety of magazines and asks, “Which one do you want to look at first?” They sit together and Kimberly slowly turns pages, listening for comments, watching body language, and facial expressions. When she sees interest or excitement, she may ask, “What are you looking at?” or “What does this remind you of?” She then tears out the picture and sets it aside, so it’s not distracting. Once they have a nice group of photos, they start on the collage, cutting and pasting together.
“The project is empowering and can spark discussion,” Kimberly says. “Plus, we can take our time and we have something artistic and interesting to discuss when it’s done.”
She often uses the finished collage again and again as a conversation starter.
Kimberly also engages people through simple nature walks, where they notice the colors, shapes, wildlife, and collect vibrantly colored leaves, pinecones, acorns, and more.
She celebrates people’s individuality by writing their name on watercolor paper in black marker and inviting them to fill in the letters and surroundings with colored pencils.
When people need a little exercise and a good laugh, she invites her dog to join them in a sparkling game of balloon volleyball. Her dog is an expert at keeping the balloon aloft and soon everyone is supporting him in this uplifting endeavor.
“Even if you’re not in a good mood, doing some kind of art, exercise, or creative project makes you stop and appreciate the present,” Kimberly says.
- Invite several musical kids/friends/relatives to come over, tell you about their instrument, and help you make a sound on it.
- Have fun playing imaginary instruments along with a big band or big orchestra music.
- Listen to favorite instrumentals and talk about any memories evoked.
- Look at pictures of various instruments and share stories. Ask open-ended questions with no right or wrong answers, such as, “ What do you think about the piano?” “What are some of your favorite instruments?”
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“We are here to see Dr. Nguyen Thanh Binh, head of the Department of Neuroloy and Alzheimer Diseaese,” I tell the guard at the National Geriatric Hospital of Vietnam in Hanoi, showing him my folded paper with her name printed on it.
He grins, then points to a full size sheet of paper in the security booth’s window with our names printed on it. We follow him into the hospital and up a flight of stairs. After a short wait, Dr. Binh warmly welcomes us into her office. She has a table ready with chairs and tells us she has invited others from her department to talk to us as well. Another Dr. Nguyen Thanh Binh arrives. Her Phd thesis was on easing the burden for family caregivers. Dr. Ngan Thi Hong Anh, doctor of rehabilitation, joins us. She seeks non-medical solutions for improving quality of life. Nguyen Ngoc Anh, RN, completes our group. She works daily, communicating with and caring for people who are living with dementia.
For two years. Dr. Binh and her team have been running a pilot study, inviting people who are living with dementia to attend a three day a week program that focuses on engaging socially, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. They use music therapy techniques, they bake traditional cakes together, and they enjoy various arts and crafts projects. All these therapies offer physical and occupational therapies, as well as vital social interactions. The project has been a huge success, with both family caregivers and people living with dementia enjoying the results. Besides giving the caregivers a much needed respite, families report improved quality of life and and increased abilities in the activities of daily living.
“Symptoms improve,” Dr. Binh reports. “Patients want to keep attending and families have their burdens eased.”
Dr. Binh and her team have extended the program.
Often people come to the hospital, seeking answers to issues related to memory loss. Many elders live at home with extended families, and their children and grandchildren are frequently confounded by their cognitive impairments and other symptoms of dementia. Dr. Binh and her associates offer education, information, and comfort. They describe the disease and try to help families move beyond their initial feelings of hopelessness. They encourage families to accept and embrace their elder and support him or her in living a meaningful life.
We left our meeting with these remarkable women feeling inspired. They are doing important work and making a difference for the people of Hanoi and Vietnam.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“My husband and I have been married for 53 years,” a woman with delicately curled silver hair and mournful eyes told the group. “But in the two years since he was diagnosed with dementia, our relationship has changed.” She dabs at her eyes with a tissue and takes a breath. “It has grown even stronger. We are closer than we’ve ever been.”
Ron and I were in a conference room of caregivers in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, presenting for the Greater Indiana Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. We had just shared my story, Love in the Land of Dementia, and we were all talking about the gifts we have found in the dementia journey.
Another woman, whose husband was newly diagnosed, talked about her frustration and impatience before the diagnoses.
“Now that I understand what is going on, I have vowed to be more patient. I don’t want to waste a minute of our time together.”
“My husband doesn’t know who I am right now,” another woman said. “But the other day, he gave me such a compliment. He told me, ‘I want to marry you.’”
She told us how she rummaged in her cedar chest and showed her husband their marriage certificate. He read it with interest. Then he looked at her, eyes shining, and repeated, “I want to marry you.” Those words, so filled with love, lifted her spirits immeasurably. “To think that even now, when he doesn’t remember much of our lives together, he still loves me so much, that means a lot to me.”
She smiled, as we all applauded this amazing love.
We heard more stories of amazing love at our earlier presentation in Merrillville, Indiana. When we talked about the gifts and blessings we had each discovered in the dementia journey, one woman told us, “I find it an honor to take care of my mother. She has done so much for me and I am lucky to get to care for her right now. I am glad to be able to show my unconditional love for her.”
People shared many blessings—patience, the increased ability to live in the present, gratitude, flexibility, humor—but a deepening of love was the overarching message. We felt it during our own caregiving journeys, and we felt it deeply in the presence of those caregivers.
“The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard, but must be felt with the heart.” Helen Keller
To learn more about the work the Greater Indiana Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association is doing, please visit : https://www.alz.org/indiana/
As the daughter of someone who lived with dementia, I do a lot of things to boost my brain health. I try to walk 10,000 steps a day, along with other exercise. I eat blueberries and broccoli. I do squats, try to memorize a few words of Spanish, and think about taking harmonica lessons. I try new things, laugh often, and practice drawing. But a recent study revealed that I was intuitively doing something else that was cheering on my brain, something I hadn’t even counted. Just in time for Halloween, it turns out Chocolate Boosts Brain Health!
I recently encountered a fascinating study on the Harvard Health website, and was intrigued when I read this headline: Cocoa: a sweet treat for the brain
Imagine being in Italy and contributing to scientific research by drinking a luscious dark cocoa drink every day for eight weeks. Then imagine feeling even more lucid, vibrant, and healthy after that experience. That is the essence of the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in December 2014, with this flavorful title: Cocoa flavanol consumption improves cognitive function, blood pressure control, and metabolic profile in elderly subjects. (Note: It turns out some of the “elderly” subjects are as young as 61, an age some of us may argue is merely “middle-age.”)
A Chocolate Boost Makes Your Brain Boast
I am also in love with this Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study (MSLS), of 968 people that includes these mouth-watering assertions:
All cognitive scores were significantly higher in those who consumed chocolate at least once per week, than in those who never/rarely consumed chocolate.
“More frequent chocolate consumption was significantly associated with better performance on the Global Composite score, Visual-Spatial Memory and Organization, Working Memory, Scanning and Tracking, Abstract Reasoning, and the Mini-Mental State Examination,” said the research team, which included scientists from the University of Maine.
More Delicious Cocoa-flavored News
And another study from Loma Linda University, states:
“Dark chocolate, which is 70 percent cacao, is a major source of flavonoids –- powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components that are known to be beneficial to cardiovascular health. The California team’s initial studies at Loma Linda University have shown that absorbed cacao flavonoids penetrate and accumulate in regions of the brain associated with learning and memory.”
“We are tremendously excited about what these findings could potentially mean for brain health,” said Lee Berk, DrPH, MPH, who led the team. “This may open the door for potential restorative uses for individuals with memory/recall or dementia and aging-related issues.”
Never Forget To Boost Your Brain
I now have a remedy for those days when I’m too tired to exercise, too busy for a crossword, too cranky for a brain game. Or for when I simply forget. On those days, I’ll simply treat myself to a taste of the dark side. And hope it leads me towards the light.
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