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.
No one said, “Hush,” during the excitement of the paper airplane-flying competition in the Plaza Library. No one put a warning finger to his lips during the spontaneous conversations about favorite childhood foods. And laughing and clapping were encouraged during the two short films and two clips that anchored the Feb 11th Movies and Memory event, an invitation to connect through movies and memories.
Most of the audience that poured into the Truman Forum that Saturday afternoon could not resist the alluring aroma of the freshly popping corn and stopped to get their free fix. They settled into the comfortable seats and sang along as music therapist and performer Rachelle Norman invited audience members to croon old favorites such as Blue Suede Shoes and Tennessee Waltz. Then they enjoyed two Oscar-nominated shorts, Paper Man and The Feast.
Everyone stood and walked through a waltz, guided by a ballroom dance instructor, after a romantic clip from Cinderella’s ballroom scene. After the final rousing cinematic scene, Marian the Librarian from The Music Man, everyone smiled as volunteers handed out cozy heart-shaped boxes of Russell Stover’s chocolates and shining red carnations.
“What a great way to end the week,” one of the caregivers said.
Later, Michelle Niedens, Education Director at the Heart of America Chapter of Alzheimer’s Association, said, “I don’t know whether we have more fun planning these events or participating in the events.” All of us on the planning team agreed. This partnership with the Kansas City Public Library, the Alzheimer’s Association, the Kansas City FilmFest, and The Creativity Connectiong (me and Ron) is filling us all with hope and joy. Our quest to create a dementia and family friendly film series is happening and we are delighted. It’s free of charge, offering families a lovely way to have an uplifiting and interesting experience together.
Don’t miss our next event on April 9th, 1:30 at the Plaza Library. We are thrilled to be part of the Kansas City FilmFest. and we are planning some lovely surprises for our attendees.
For additional information visit: www.kclibrary.org/signature-events/movies-and-memories-annie
“Oh what a beautiful morning,” I warbled. My mom clapped and hummed along. At the end of the song, she applauded. In her earlier days of motherhood, she might have winced slightly when I wandered off-key. But in the cradle of dementia, she was delighted with my smile, my energy, and the sheer sound of my voice. And I was delighted to be tuning into music for connection.
Carol Bradley Bursack, an author, speaker, family care partner and creator of Minding Our Elders, recently told me the story of how she helped her teenage children stay connected with their grandfather. I loved her ideas and wanted to share her tips with you.
Tuning into Music for Connection
When he was in his 70s, Carol’s father went into surgery to help repair brain damage from a World War II injury. The doctors expected no issues, but during the operation, something went awry. Her beloved father emerged from the procedure deep in dementia, with a constant voice in his head, and no grasp of reality. Valiantly, Carol dealt with her anger and grief while finding a safe and compassionate care community for her father. Then she began searching out ways she and her sons could stay connected with him.
“Dad loved big band music,” Carol says. “I bought every CD I could find. He loved to direct and listen to the music.”
Finding a Musical Bridge
Carol’s sons were very close to their grandfather. He had always been there for them, a vibrant, fun presence, celebrating their abilities, playing chess with them, and listening to their stories. When her sons saw that Grandfather was so changed he couldn’t even hug them and no longer understood the chessboard, they were devastated.
“They didn’t know how to bond with him,” Carol says.
Carol understood their reluctance to visit and gave them some space. She didn’t make the children feel guilty about their feelings, but she did want them to maintain a relationship with their grandfather. Tuning into music for connection came to the rescue.
The boys both played instruments and Carol urged them to take their clarinet and trumpet to the care community. At first, they were hesitant. They stood shyly before this new grandfather, barely able to blow out the notes. But at the end of their first short tune, Grandfather beamed and asked for an encore. The boys grinned and played more confidently. People came from down the hallways, wanting to hear the music.
“The boys and their music had made a connection,” Carol says. “All three of them were happy and relaxed.”
Creating Together to Build Connection
Carol continued to seek ways to help her sons feel comfortable during their visits. She also wanted them to feel a sense of accomplishment and to cherish their relationship with their grandfather.
Sometimes the boys took hand-drawn pictures to decorate the walls. Other times, they showed up with examples of science projects and told their grandpa about them. The boys brought chess pieces, old photos from Grandpa’s younger days, and games that they’d played with Grandpa. They invited their grandfather to share stories about these objects and often he did.
“It’s hard for young minds to accept such changes,” Carol says. “Their grief can slide under the radar. I was constantly looking for activities we could share, projects that were mutually engaging and that Grandpa could understand.”
Through it all, their mutual love of music kept them together.
For more information on the important work Carol is doing, visit her website: www.mindingourelders.com.
And treat yourself to her book, Minding Our Elders.
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.
For months, our Kansas City Movies and Memory team has been working on creating a memorable dementia-friendly movie experience and film series. Ron and I were so lucky to partner with the Heart of America Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, the Kansas City Public Library, and the Kansas City FilmFest. For our first offering, we wanted a short movie with a splash of fun and a heart-filled message that would engage multi-generations. We wanted live music and free popcorn. We wanted each person to walk away with a souvenir. And we wanted to attract a diverse audience.
The Red Balloon was a wonderful success. This ageless film, about a boy and his magical balloon, attracted one hundred people, from ages three up through the nineties. Our audience, little kids and big kids both, clustered around the popcorn machine, watching the aromatic kernels blossom. They listened to Parisian songs by a renowned clarinetist and a guitarist. They learned a little about creating a “memory aware” city. And they laughed, smiled, sat on the edge of their seats, and clapped, all avidly involved in the movie. At the end, we walked out holding a huge bouquet of red balloons and each person was excited to take home a lovely reminder of the afternoon.
Here’s what we learned: when you’re taking photos of people holding balloons, you don’t even have to ask them to say, “Cheese.” They’re already smiling.
Here’s the great news.
You can easily have this movie experience at home. It’s perfect for an intergenerational family gathering, a holiday event, or just a cozy evening at home.
Here are a few tips for creating a memorable movie experience:
- Pick a time of day where everyone has good energy. Our event was held at 2:00 in the afternoon.
- Make sure the technology is organized and everyone can see the screen.
- Arrange for comfortable seating and minimal distractions.
- Offer your favorite movie-going indulgences. Freshly popped popcorn is irresistible.
- Talk about what you’re going to see.
- If you want, stop the movie in the middle and talk about what you’ve seen. Ask open-ended questions, such as “Would you have climbed the pole to fetch the balloon?” “Why do you think the boy loved the balloon so much?” “What does this movie make you think of?”
- At the end, talk about the movie: what you liked, what you didn’t like, and what the movie made you think about.
- When the movie experience is complete, hand each person a helium-filled red balloon. Even a red balloon filled with hot air will do!
The Red Balloon is just one idea. Please tell us about movies or TV shows you have enjoyed watching and share your film-watching tips.
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.
The next three blogs are dedicated to the holiday season. This story just appeared in Chicken Soup’s new Merry Christmas book. Here’s to each of us sharing our light in the world.
The Latke Legacy
“This is not like Mom used to make,” I had to confess. It was my first Chanukah of being the latke lady. My mother’s potato pancakes were crisp, flat, and nicely rounded. The texture was smooth but not mushy and they shone with just a glint of leftover oil. I had been a latke apprentice for years, pressed into service by Mom. I was a key cog in the labor pool, peeling the potatoes, then wearing out my arm rubbing them against the stainless steel grater, using the side with the teardrop shaped holes. My mother must have known that enlisting my help would keep me from pestering her to make potato pancakes for other occasions. Only once a year did these delicious patties grace our table, when we lit the first candles of Chanukah and began the eight-day Festival of Lights.
My debut latkes were pale and greasy, like something carelessly served in a late night diner. I myself was pale and greasy from the stress of trying to coax the patties into cohesion. First they had drifted apart—too little flour. Then they had turned cliquish, glomming into militant lumps. When I had finally worked through the potato/flour/egg ratio, I bumped into the complex dynamic between potatoes, oil and heat. For three hours I had struggled to create this barely edible token of tradition.
Years passed. Every Chanukah, I faced a different challenge. The oil was too cold, too hot, not enough, too much. The texture was too coarse or too fine. The grated onions were too strong or too weak. The latke mixture was too thin then too thick. Every year, I hoped for pancakes that tasted like Mom’s and got instead grey leaden latkes. My daughters, who peeled and grated potatoes with me, examined my finished product warily, smothering it in the traditional applesauce and often taking only a few bites. I worried that when they grew up, they would forego the holiday tradition and turn to something simpler and more delicious, like frozen hash browns. I felt a sense of failure as a mother and as a tender of the tradition. My mother had shown me how to make the latkes: why couldn’t I measure up and instill the potato pancake protocol in my progeny?
Then my daughter Sarah, fresh from college and a first job, moved back to town and offered to help me prepare the holiday meal. She was a food channel devotee and had already orchestrated several dinner parties, creating the menus and cooking all the courses. She understood the relationship between vegetables, oil and heat.
“Mom, I think you need to squeeze more water out of the potato mixture,” she advised. “Maybe you could use a food processor to grate the potatoes. What if you used two pans instead of trying to cram so many into one?”
I stepped back and she stepped forward and under her guidance, we prepared the latkes. As I watched my daughter mastermind the cooking, I realized that tradition could be kept alive in many ways. My daughter was starting the tradition of “doing what you’re good at,” giving me a chance to forget my own culinary challenges and applaud her self-taught abilities.
That Chanukah night, everyone at the table oohed and ahhed at the sight of the latkes. Each one was golden brown and crisp, free of extra oil. I didn’t even have to secretly search and pluck out a “good one,” like I had been forced to do in previous years.
I looked around the table of friends and family and took a bite of my daughter’s latke. My mouth filled with the crunch, flavor and intriguing texture of a of well-fried potato pancake. This was the latke I had been waiting for; just like Mom used to make. Only better.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
How do children internalize the dementia of a beloved family member and what can we do to help them connect and understand the process?
I was so impressed by the book that I asked Max to share more of his insights.
Here is a Q & A featuring some pieces of “Wallack wisdom.”
A. You want to allay the child’s fears so they can continue to have a loving relationship with their relative or friend.
A. I had a hard time understanding why Great Grams might be confused and behave very badly at home and then appear normal when we went out. A doctor told me that sometimes the nerve impulse in the brain jumps the synapse and sometimes it doesn’t. I tried to visualize this in the book with my illustration of the ball player who sometimes makes the catch and sometimes doesn’t. The diseased brain cell cannot always “make the catch.”
A. Just being there can make a difference. Sometimes adult caregivers need a few minutes for themselves. Perhaps they need to cook a meal or take a shower. Even a young child could alert a caregiver if the person who has Alzheimer’s wanders outside or gets into some obvious trouble.
A. I developed a very early sense of responsibility and empathy. I know of other young caregivers who have a sense of caring and responsibility beyond their years. Their parents don’t thrust this responsibility upon them; rather, it is developed as they learn empathy. Children have a natural tendency to want to help. Parents should allow them to participate in the caregiving and not shield them from what is happening.
A. Very young children are often confused about the disease and worry it might be contagious. They need a simple explanation of what is happening. I believe Alzheimer’s disease should be taught in our schools. This could lead to mini support groups for children, perhaps facilitated by a guidance counselor. I hope schools might use “Why Did Grandma Put Her Underwear in the Refrigerator.”
A. People with Alzheimer’s disease are still the same people you have always known. They are “more there” than meets the eye. The trick is to find a means of communicating with them. The creative arts represent a great means of connection, since the area of the brain involved in creativity is one of the last areas affected by the disease.
Max Wallack’s journey with his grandmother helped him identify his calling. He is a student at Boston University and a Research Intern in the Molecular Psychiatry and Aging Laboratory in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at Boston University School of Medicine. He is also the founder of PUZZLES TO REMEMBER. a project that provides puzzles to nursing homes and veterans’ institutions that care for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.
It wasn’t just an ordinary visit. I walked into the long-term care facility and made my way to the memory care unit. I paused in front of the locked door, pulled a crumpled scrap of paper out of my pocket and tapped the entry code into the keypad. As I walked to my mother’s room, her new home, I felt sad, confused and guilty. How was I going to connect with my mom in this strange new environment?
Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, has 16 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care and understands the emotions and confusions family or friends might feel when visiting in a long-term care facility. Here are her tips for having a meaningful connection.
Many families find it stressful to visit their loved ones in long-term care, especially if dementia has changed their usual ways of relating. Here are seven ways to make the most of your visits:
- Help the room feel like home by bringing photos and bedspreads, creating an environment that feels more comfortable and familiar to your relative and more pleasant for you to visit. Labeling the photos with names (such as “Oldest son, Sam”) provides reminders in your absence and clues for the staff that are with your loved one daily.
Turn off the television or radio and close the door during your time together. When the room is quiet and free of distractions, it’s easier for someone with dementia (and for those with hearing loss) to focus on their visitors.
Try to converse at the same height, sitting on beds or chairs rather than standing while your loved one is sitting. Bring in small folding chairs and stash them in a corner if you tend to have lots of visitors. Remember, though, that some people react better to hosting just a couple of guests at a time rather than a possibly loud and confusing crowd.
Use memory aides such as photos and magazines of beloved hobbies as conversation starters. Creating a memory book together can be a great way to spend some time, especially if the focus is on enjoying the process and the conversation that comes from it rather than on completing the memory book in a set amount of time.
Go with the flow of the conversation, allowing your loved one to talk about what’s on their mind, rather than asking questions they used to be able to answer but no longer can, which is upsetting for everyone. For instance, replace, “Don’t you remember X?” with “Your flower garden was so lovely,” adding details that reflect your appreciation for their abilities and see what response this generates.
Find pleasurable activities that don’t involve talking, if that’s beyond your loved ones’ capabilities at this point. Listen to music, hold a private stretching class, go outside and enjoy the sun and the birds. Just be, pleasantly, without expectations.
Talk to staff members and to other visiting families and become part of the long-term care community. Media reports to the contrary, most long-term care homes are filled with people who are trying to do the best they can for your loved one under challenging circumstances. They can become your allies, supporters, and teammates in care.
Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD is an accomplished speaker and elder-care coach with over 16 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care. Read her book, The Savvy Resident’s Guide, for the inside scoop on how nursing homes work and visit her award-winning website, MyBetterNursingHome.com, for more tips on how to thrive in long-term care.