If my mother were still alive, I would be taking her roses and chocolate this Mother’s Day. She would be delighted and her delight would magnify when my daughters and her great-grandchildren arrived. Love is such a beautiful glue, such a simple and strong way to stay connected. I wanted to share this story from Love in the Land of Dementia, as a way of celebrating our mothers.
The Woman She Was
My friend Karen gives me a gift: she says, “Tell me about your mother.”
We are sitting in a quiet mid-afternoon café and I let the question sink into me.
When friends occasionally ask me, “How is your mother doing?” I have different answers, depending on the situation. If we are in one of those conversations that are like confetti in brisk wind, I say, “She’s okay.”
If we are sitting across from each other and my friend is looking right at me, I answer, “She’s pretty deep into Alzheimer’s.”
“Does she recognize you?” she might ask.
“No, but she may recognize I am a person she likes,” I answer.
That usually ends that conversation.
But “Tell me about your mother,” is an invitation I don’t usually get.
“What would you like to know?” I ask.
She stirs her iced mocha. “Whatever you want to tell me,” she says softly. “I would like to know about her life and her interests.”
Since my mother has been in the nursing home with Alzheimer’s, I have seldom talked about the person she used to be. Occasionally my father and I reminisce about family vacations and outings. I sometimes ask Dad questions about our growing up days and the early days of their courtship. But I rarely think about the woman I knew all my life, the mother, grandmother, artist, gardener, compassionate friend, avid reader, bird-watcher, early morning walker, lemon-meringue pie baker. That woman is gone and I have spent a lot of energy learning to know and appreciate the woman who now commandeers her body.
As I consider what I want to tell Karen, I remember visiting my mom’s best friend, Bel, in California when I was a teenager. Bel, who was spunky and adventurous in a way that seemed so different from my conservative mother, drove me from Berkeley to the small resort where I would work as a chambermaid for the summer.
“Do you know how I met your mom?” she asked me, as we drove down the winding roads, past fragrant stands of eucalyptus trees.
“In Iceland, during the World War II,” I said. I had heard stories of the two of them taking a break from their work in the hospital by skiing, then stopping for a soak in a hot springs.
“No, we met earlier in Chicago. We were both nurses working the twelve-hour night shift. The hospital had a room with a couple of bunk beds so we could rest on breaks. One night I walked in there and heard the most heart-breaking sobbing. It was Frances, crying her eyes out. I asked her what was wrong and she said, ‘Nothing.’”
I smiled. That sounded like Mom, never wanting to admit anything was wrong.
“Then I asked her again and she sobbed out that her husband Sam had died six months ago from pneumonia. She was so sad she didn’t know if she could go on. A bunch of other nurses and I were going to Florida for a short vacation and I persuaded your mother to join us. But as it turned out, we never went; a week later I decided to join the Army and I encouraged her to come along. We’ve been best friends ever since.”
When I heard this story at the age of seventeen, I was too young to fathom my mother’s grief and despair. By the time I told Karen the story, I had some sense of what my mother must have gone through.
“Your Mom was really brave, to serve in the Army during wartime,” Karen says.
I feel a little swell of pride. Mom’s tales of traveling in the darkest night on the troop ship, with bombs falling nearby, were so familiar I had never considered her bravery and courage.
Now I tell Karen how my father, encouraged by Bel’s husband, wrote Mom a letter, telling her he was ready to marry a nice Jewish girl. Was she interested? Was she available?
After some correspondence, Mom surprised herself by agreeing to meet him in Chicago. At the end of the week, my father asked her to marry him. She considered the offer for three weeks and accepted. Their whirlwind romance was fueled by practicality.
“What a great story,” Karen says. “Your mother must be an amazing woman.”
Sparked by Karen’s interest, I let myself feel my love for my mother as she used to be. I am in tears by the time our conversation ends.
“Thank you for asking me about my mother,” I say to Karen.
“Your stories make me want to call my own mom and hear her stories again.”
As I drive home, I think of more “mom” stories to share with my children and my brother. I see myself, along with my brother and father, as the carrier of my mother’s sacred legacy. I imagine myself tenderly fanning the embers, adding dry leaves and crumbled paper, creating a blaze with each memory. I realize I don’t have to give up Mom’s old self: I can be her historian and her scribe, carrying her stories with me, and making sure they live on.
Karli Ritter is a self-described “weather nerd.” When this Fox 4 meteorologist finished her lively talk at April’s KC Memory Cafe, we all had a bit of that “weather nerd” fever in us. We listened intently as Karli described her early morning routine, up at 4:30 a.m., studying the weather maps and data so she could formulate a forecast. She detailed the complexities of being an integral part of a five-hour show: she actually appears on TV 90 times during the Kansas City Fox morning show! Her talk reminded us that great weather information inspires great conversations.
Karli has a love for storms and we were delighted with our “tornado” experience, courtesy of the Kansas City Public Library staff. We used a special coupler to link one empty liter bottle with one half full with water. Then we shook and turned it upside down and voila! a little tunnel tornado formed in the water! Each person was fascinated by this experiment. That led us to a conversation about personal weather experiences. Our attendees had gone through hurricanes, earthquakes, dust storms, tornadoes, nor’easter’s and much more.
Our discussion continued on the way out, with guests describing the varied weather in the Kansas Flint Hills, rainbows they’d seen, family members who loved forecasting the weather, and long hot summers and long cold winters.
Bringing the weather home.
To start a weather conversation in your own family or community, use music as a catalyst. Play songs such as: You Are My Sunshine, Stormy Weather, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head, The Sunny Side of the Street, Let It Snow. After each song, ask an open-ended question. “What do you like about snow?” Or,” What seasons do you like most?” Or “Have you ever been in a really big storm?” Or,”What is your favorite kind of weather?”
You can also play iconic movie clips that feature weather, such as the joyous tap dancing scene in Singing in the Rain, or the tornado scene in The Wizard of Oz.
Dramatic weather photos and pictures can also trigger memories and comments.
Thanks to our Cafe Team and thanks for those who visited.
Our next adventure: May 15, 10:30 to 12:00, Plaza Library
Music to Our Ears: The Kansas City Symphony Brings Us Note-worthy Instruments
You’ve heard them as part of the orchestra. Now you’ll be meeting selected instruments first-hand, as the Symphony’s Margaret Halloin joins us for this delightful interactive session. Enjoy refreshments and interesting conversations as we learn more about the sounds of music.
It’s a Sunday morning in early April and we were excited about our Movies and Memories laughter program that afternoon at 2:00.
Then, the unthinkable happened. It started to snow, blanketing the daffodils and tulips with just enough flakes to make people want to cozy up at home.
What did we do? Laugh, of course.
Laughter was the theme of our April program and we had excerpts from the inestimable Mr. Bean to anchor our program.
As Emily from the Kansas City Public Library, Plaza Branch, made our popcorn and other library staff readied the technology, we accepted the fact that we might have only our intrepid volunteers in the audience. We all vowed to have a great time anyway.
Musician Richelle Basgall regaled us with songs and stories and our guests began to arrive. Soon we had about 30 people who ignored the weather and were ready for fun. And fun we had. One of our volunteers brought us sumptuous cookies and small cakes. The aroma of fresh popcorn warmed us all and we laughed our way through a hilarious clip of Mr. Bean playing miniature golf. Then we passed out jokes, which we laughingly shared with each other. (What kind of sandwiches do astronauts eat: Launch meat! Why did the oil painting get sent to jail? It was framed!)
After watching Mr. Bean’s laundromat escapades, we had a laughter yoga session. We didn’t have to worry about traditional physical yoga postures—laughter yoga includes clapping, gestures, playfulness, and breathing. Everyone was a hearty laugher and we were all relaxed and smiling as we watched Mr. Bean’s horror as he tried to cope with raw oysters at a fancy restaurant.
Our ending surprise was a delicious way to take Mr. Bean home— gourmet jelly beans!!
Stay tuned for our next Movies and Memories event in August!
Want to have a movies and memories event right in your own home?
Here are a few tips:
If you’d like to make this an intergenerational experience, select a movie or clips you all might enjoy.
Choose a time of day when the person living with dementia will have good energy.
Get your favorite movie treats ready.
Create times to pause and chat about what you’ve seen.
Print out simple jokes as a great way to spread the laughter.
If you wish, offer a surprise at the end, either something that reminds you to laugh or smile. And if you like sweets, our jelly beans were a huge hit! With all those flavors, you have a lot to talk about!
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.”
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/
Here’s where you come in.
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.