You know what it’s like, creating a program series for the first time. You try to think of everything, knowing that you’ve probably left something out. You hope plenty of people will attend and worry that no one will show up. The weather teases you, threatening snow or rain, thunder or wind. The “what if’s” line up, a mean group of scolders: “What if the elevator breaks? What if the speaker doesn’t show up? What if the snacks don’t arrive? What if the KC Memory Cafe doesn’t work!”
But, as most of us know, worry isn’t really that useful.
The debut of the KC Memory Cafe was beyond our highest expectations! On March 20, 2018, at 10:30 at the Plaza Library, the educators from the Kansas City Zoo showed up early, riding the elevator down to the lower level with their exotic offerings. The weather was perfect and a lovely group of 40 plus care partners and people living with dementia joined us, delighting in the delicious snacks. And they were even more delighted with the program, all of us laughing at the antics of the cockatoo, leaning forward to see the Vietnamese Tree Frog cozied in his glass aquarium, and petting the chinchilla, with a fluff of fur that felt like a cloud.
“I love this animal,” one attendee said, smiling at the blue tongued skink.
“This is the softest fur I’ve ever experienced,” said another, reveling in the chinchilla.
“That bird is so funny,” said another, laughing as the cockatoo bounced up and down, “dancing.”
After learning about the animals, we talked about our own pet memories. It was a wonderful morning and we can’t wait for our next Memory Cafe, on April 17, 2018.
Click here so you can experience the fun of the Cafe.
Want to join us on April 17 for our next Cafe? Here’s the scoop!
Weather Wonders: The Inside Story
Metereologist Karli Ritter Reveals Weather Mysteries 10:30 am on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. Plaza Library Lower Level. Join us for the KC Memory Cafe, a free event dedicated to creating educational and social experiences for people who are living with memory loss and for their care partners.
Our Team — Standing: Emily Cox, April Roy, Carol and Dennis McCurdy. Sitting: Ron Zoglin and Deborah Shouse, Jennifer Walker, Mandy Shoemaker
Throughout our journey in Vietnam, we met a number of inspiring elders. These include an 87-year-old public letter writer in the old Saigon train station, a 67-year-old woman carrying baskets of pomelos and bitter melons, a beautiful 74-year-old gardener hacking at weeds with a machete, a 100-year-old matriarch in a farming family, and an 83-year-old village chief. Because the life expectancy in Vietnam has risen over the last 20 years, its people are living longer. Along with that blessing comes an increased chance of dementia. Neurologist Trần Công Thắng. MD, and his team, Nguyen Tudny Vy and Le Thi Yen Vy, are dedicated to working with medical professionals and community members, educating on dementia.
“Many people think memory loss is just part of normal aging, ” Dr. Thang told us, when we visited him in Choray Hospital in Saigon. “We want people to understand that dementia is not a regular part of growing older—it’s a brain disease.”
Twenty years ago, few people were discussing dementia in Vietnam. But now, it’s a vital issue for two reasons. First, the country’s life expectancy has increased from age 64 to age 75. Second, many families no longer have seven or more children; they have two to three offspring. This intensifies the burden for family caregivers.
Dr. Thang is a researcher, speaker, educator, and a founding member of the Association of Vietnamese Alzheimer’s Disease and Neurocognitive Disorders. Through his classes and diagnostic clinics, Dr. Thang and his colleagues offer people much needed information and resources. He is partnering with a local rehabilitation hospital in creating a day program for those living with dementia. The program will offer cognitive stimulation and social engagement for those living with dementia.
Person by person, Dr. Thang is helping healthcare professionals understand the behaviors and issues associated with dementia. He hopes to make life better for family caregivers and their family members who have memory loss.
“Here’s some medication,” the neurologist told Mike Belleville. “See you in six months.” The doctor stood up to leave, but Mike just sat there, exhausted from months of struggle and confusion, worn ragged from all the tests and consultations. For months, Mike, age 52, had been “hiding under a rock.” His mind wasn’t working right and he worried he’d make a mistake, so he withdrew from his busy life. Now, he was numbed by the diagnosis he’d just received; younger onset Alzheimer’s.
Those three words seemed insurmountable.
“My wife and I had no connection to support services and we had no idea what to do next,” Mike says. “We felt so alone.”
Without his job as a Senior Telecommunications Technician at Verizon, his community volunteer projects, and his hobby of photography, Mike sank into a depression. After several months, his wife found a program at their Alzheimer’s Association that focused on finding a purpose and living well with dementia.
“From meeting others who had the diagnosis, I realized, I can still enjoy, do, and learn,” Mike says. “But more importantly, I realized that I have a voice. I want to use that voice for as long as I can.”
Even though he had no experience with public speaking, Mike plunged in and became an outspoken advocate, visiting Washington D.C., and speaking at a number of dementia forums.
“Somehow, I was comfortable discussing dementia,” he says. “Even when I was interviewed in front of 1300 people, I felt like I was sitting in a coffee shop, talking to a friend.”
He joined the advisory board of the Dementia Action Alliance and expanded his speaking and advocacy work.
Cooking Up New Skills
Mike was frustrated that he could no longer contribute financially to his household. So he searched for ways he could help around the house. He volunteered to do laundry and soon learned he did not “know when to fold ‘em.” Then he made a discovery: he could combine his desire to learn, his creative curiosity, his love of technology, and his desire to help through the joys of cooking.
Prior to dementia, hamburgers and hot dogs comprised Mike’s culinary repertoire: he could grill with the best of them.
“Thank goodness for Pinterest and YouTube,” Mike says. He searches for recipes on-line, then scans YouTube for a demonstration video, which he watches several times. He uses an App called Paprika, so he has the recipe in front of him. Then, Gordon Ramsey style, he lines up all his ingredients.
“Through trial and error, I learned to put away each ingredient after I added it in,” Mike says. “That way, nothing gets used more than once.”When his wife returns from work, they put the dish on the stove and cook the rest of the meal together.
“She’s very appreciative of my new talents and I’m happy to be exercising my brain and nourishing our family,” Mike says.
Putting Purpose to Technology
Early on, Mike volunteered at a local senior center, starting a technology group called, Mike’s Google Gals. Once a week, he helped people with their phones, tablets and computers. When he and his family moved, he volunteered to host a free Tech Corner on Dementia Action Alliance’s website, offering his problem solving skills as needed. He helps people get on line so they can participate in a vibrant virtual community.
“I get just as much out of this as I put into it,” Mike says. “The more I stay active, the better I am.”
Mike and his wife share an electronic calendar, so she can support him with his schedule. His vibrating smart watch offers reminders of meetings and appointments.
“Because I’m wearing the watch, I don’t have to worry about misplacing it and missing a text or an email,” Mike says.
Mike envisions home automation devices extending beyond moderating lights and temperature.
“I have an issue with anxiety,” Mike says. “I would like a wearable devise that automatically detects my anxiety. As I become more stressed, the device could turn on my TV, which would be tuned into a soothing video of my wife talking to me. Or it could turn on a calming musical playlist.”
Mike also envisions sensors that would alert his wife if he turns on the stove or walks out the front door. He would like to help develop these types of products.
Recipe for Living Well with Dementia
Mike views living with dementia as his new career.
“I’m using the same skills I honed in my earlier career,” he says.
His prescription for living well includes staying socially engaged, finding a purpose, and helping others.
At first, Mike saw his diagnosis as the end, but now he’s busy living. He has the Alzheimer’s logo tattooed on his arm with the motto, “Live life today.”
“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.
As Director of Operations for a national call center, Paulan Gordon’s work required an intense travel schedule, detailed project management skills, and a rigorous adherence to industry standards. So when she started feeling confused, she attributed the struggles to stress. Some days, she felt so overwhelmed that she locked herself in her office and called her husband to come pick her up early.
She was asked to step down from her position. Initially, the loss of her career was both financially and emotionally staggering. Suddenly, she had no purpose, no income, and no peer group. She had to reinvent her life.
In 2012, at the age of 57, Paulan was diagnosed with vascular dementia. After a period of uncertainty, Paulan began using her interpersonal, communication, and management skills and volunteering as a mentor and a dementia advocate.
“I’ve learned there’s a lot more to life than success in business,” she says.
When she was working, Paulan was so busy she didn’t have time to build friendships. Now, through her mentoring, she has developed deep connections with others who are living with dementia.
“The relationships you create within the walls of dementia are so intimate,” Paulan says. “People talk very openly about their personal problems and challenges. I feel enriched, being part of these conversations and having such close friends.”
Her work as a dementia mentor has also given Paulan a sense of purpose.
“I work with four people and all of them appreciate my phone calls and my caring. That appreciation boosts my spirits,” she says.
Through her mentoring and advocacy work, she’s met doctors, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and others who have applied their intelligence and skills to living successfully with dementia.
Speaking out for Adaptation
When Paulan gave business speeches, her hands grew clammy and her mouth dry. She battled nervousness and worried about getting facts wrong and making errors.
“Now, I don’t get very nervous,” she says. “I’m speaking from my heart about things close to me, so I can’t make a mistake. Plus, I’m motivated: I want to help others and I want people to understand the truth about dementia.”
Letting Go of Difficulty
“You’ve asked me that question five times already,” Paulan’s husband says.
“Then it must be really important,” she answers.
Paulan is happy she can laugh at trying situations. She has let go of things she can no longer do. She stopped driving because spatial relationships were difficult for her. Paulan knows she’s forgetful and sometimes repeats herself. Her husband and family take that repetition in their stride. She’s also trained her family not to interrupt her when she’s talking, because she can easily lose track of what she was saying.
“My husband doesn’t call attention to my deficits and I forget I have them,” she says.
Proactively, he reminds her about meetings and appointments. She uses a big planner and makes detailed notes, including instructions on how to sign onto the internet, and notes on various conversations.
Changing Reading and Money
Paulan is constantly using her creativity to solve problems. She was an avid reader, but her memory retention has diminished and understanding complicated novels with dozens of characters became a challenge.
“If I put down a book, I can’t remember what happened at the beginning,” she says. “Although there is an upside to the situation: I could save money reading the same books over and over again.”
She temporarily put down her tomes and started reading short stories and magazines. This allowed her to continue her beloved hobby without so much frustration.
She also worked around her reduced mathematical abilities. When she shops, she hands the cashier an extra dollar, so she doesn’t get overwhelmed by counting out coins.
“I hope people are honest when they give me change,” she says.
Stirring up her Spirits
“I don’t worry about dying” she says. “I basically feel positive.”
Many people have a distorted view of dementia. With her speaking and writing, Paulan helps people understand the truths of the disease.
“I like sharing ways to support friends and loved ones who are living with dementia,” she says. “This information helps prevent decline and dramatically increases the well being of both care partners and people living with dementia.”
Meanwhile, Paulan’s advocacy and mentoring work has filled her life with depth, friendships, creativity, and purpose.
We roll into the memory care facility’s 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 in.
“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 baked, then smeared with butter and sprinkled with sugar . 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 song. She let the holiday rush by her, like a large train, whooshing past and leaving her behind.
Now, I am singing Christmas carols to my Mom for the first time and she is smiling. 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, 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 scarlet nose, Mom laughs, her face a miracle in pure enjoyment. I laugh too, so delighted to see Mom engaged and absorbed.
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.Here’s to a meaningful and fun holiday season.
I look forward to connecting with you when I resume blogging in early January.
I named my brother Dan, our head chef, first. Then I included the support team—myself, my mom, my daughters and nephews.
“Did I help?” Mom whispered as I passed her the mashed potatoes.
“You sure did,” I told her. ”You mashed the potatoes, put the marshmallows on the sweet potato casserole, and mixed the fruit salad.”
“That’s good,” she said. “I like to help.”
Our desire to help and contribute to seasonal celebrations doesn’t end with a diagnosis of dementia. It’s lovely to linger in the kitchen together, preparing food for the holidays. It’s even lovelier when you can adapt and enjoy dementia inclusive holiday cooking so that people of varying abilities can participate.
Rebecca Katz, author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook, sees food as a great equalizer, something anyone can enjoy regardless of abilities. Fixing a delicacy for someone offers a tangible and delicious way to give back.
Here are six secrets of iementia Inclusive holiday cooking.
- Leaf through a favorite family cookbook or recipe box and use the pictures and recipes as a catalyst for conversation. Ask open-ended questions, such as, ”What does that brownie recipe make you think of?” “What do you like about the holiday season?”
- Chose a time of day when you’re both rested.
- Create a comfortable kitchen environment, by playing familiar seasonal songs you can both hum or sing along to. Reduce extraneous noise and distractions, such as a television in the background.
- If you wish, take photos during the experience. That way, you can relive the adventure and share with family and friends.
- Indulge in instant gratification, if possible, by sampling your work when the cooking is complete.
- Even if the person living with dementia can’t help prepare food, he can still enjoy sitting in on the action and the conversation.
Whether you’re stirring a pot of orzo or dropping mint leaves into cool water, enjoy your time of creation and connection in the kitchen.
A longer version of this piece originally appeared on Joan Lunden’s excellent website: Enjoy Dementia Inclusive Holiday Cooking. Thanks to Sue Fitzsimmons, MS, ARNP, Judith Fertig, author of The Memory of Lemon, Kate Pierce, LMSW, Alzheimer’s Association Greater Michigan Chapter, and Rebecca Katz, author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook
Deborah Shouse is the author of Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together and Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
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.”
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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