I caught up with Nettie Harper and Kelly Gilligan, co-founders of Inspired Memory Care, Inc. as they were rushing down the streets of Manhattan, off to consult with a client. I loved hearing the city sounds, horns honking, cars edging past, a lone dog barking, as they shared their five secrets for making date night great. (I have changed the names in this story to protect people’s privacy.)
During my mother’s journey through dementia, my father was always seeking ways to stay connected with her. He would have loved the ideas in this article.
Five Secrets For Making Date Night Great!
Margaret slipped on a string of pearls and surveyed herself in the bathroom mirror. Her royal blue silk dress, one that her husband Harold had bought her for their 40th wedding anniversary, still looked good. She fingered her hair nervously and hoped this evening would go well. Their last weekly dinner date had been a disaster. Harold had felt uncomfortable in the restaurant, even though they’d chosen it together. He picked at his food and barely spoke a word. Margaret had to hold back tears as she looked around the brightly lit room and envied all the happy couples and families, laughing, talking, and savoring their food.
Tonight, she vowed, would be different. Tonight, she was prepared, coached by Nettie Harper and Kelly Gilligan of Inspired Memory Care, Inc, in Manhattan, NY.
She’d chosen a quiet restaurant and reserved a cozy corner table, away from the bustle. Harold’s face tightened as they strolled in, but she took his hand and he squeezed hers. After they settled into their seats and ordered their meal, the dreaded silence descended. She was about to say, “Do you remember the time we took my cousin from England out to dinner…?” but she bit her lip. Harold’s eyes went blank when she prodded him for specific memories.
Instead, Margaret unfolded an article on sailing, one of Harold’s passions, and offered it to him. “Could we read this together?” she asked. The large print made it easy to see and Harold began reading aloud, weaving in the open-ended questions Nettie and Kelly had written in for them to discuss.
“What does this make you think of?” he read, after a few moments.
“The sea,” Harold said.
Margaret took a turn reading aloud, and Harold leaned forward a little.
“Would you ever go out on such stormy seas?” she asked.
“If I felt strong I might,” Harold said. “I always liked sailing with you. Remember that time with the snow and the animals? Those big fish?”
Margaret smiled and took Harold’s hand.
“That was our whale watching cruise. I do remember. I really liked the penguins.”
“What did I like?” Harold asked.
“The glaciers,” she said. “And the dancing.”
In their work, Nettie and Kelly often coach care partners like Margaret, offering creative ways to stay connected with loved ones who are living with dementia. Their idea of bringing along an article on one of Harold’s favorite topics transformed the dinner into a time of wonderful sharing. On future date nights, Margaret continued to bring along articles on topics of great interest, as conversation starters.
Nettie and Kelly’s company, Inspired Memory Care, Inc. (IMC), is founded on the belief that older adults, both with and without memory impairment, should have access to life-enriching, esteem-building experiences, sharing their wisdom and pursuing their passions each day.
“We encourage couples and families to commit to rituals and set aside time together, just like you would without a memory impairment,” says Nettie. “Date night is an important part of the week, a chance to do something special and unique.”
“We coach people to ask open-ended questions, such as, ‘Would you rather..’ “Would you ever…’ ‘Tell me more about…’” Kelly says.
“‘Tell me more” is one of the strongest questions you can ask. Frequently words come flooding out.
After posing an open-ended question, they encourage care partners to wait, allow silence, and give people a chance to respond.
“If we jump in and give the answer, we’re taking away the strength of the individual,” they believe.
So what are the five secrets to a successful date night?
- Bring a conversational catalyst, such as an interesting article to discuss.
- Ask open-ended questions.
- Wait lovingly for the answers.
- Meet people where they are.
- Celebrate your time together.
Use these five secrets for making date night great and create a meaningful and connective atmosphere — for any couple or family — regardless of cognitive abilities!
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.