Creative Listening in the Land of Dementia: Three Innovative Ways to Enjoy Repetition in the Caregiver’s Journey

Pretend you are editing a story, acting in a play or practicing for a concert.

You go over the same material again and again, seeking nuances, sinking deeper into the art form, hoping to find additional meaning. You integrate the piece into your heart and mind.

Imagine what would happen if you could bring that same set of creative thinking to the story your memory-impaired father just told you for the 112th time!

Listen in a New Way

That was my task during a particularly repetitive period in my mother’s Alzheimer’s: learning to appreciate each telling of the same tale, knowing the story was an important part of Mom’s life and that later, the story might disappear.

My friends Meg and Jim helped me by saying, “We loved sitting by your mom and hearing her WWII stories. She was really courageous.”

I felt a flash of pride and a flush of shame; those were the very stories I was so weary of.

I decided to listen to her stories in a new way, seeing what I could learn about Mom from careful, loving listening. I challenged myself, asking these questions:

What does the story say about my mom?

As I listened anew to Mom’s story of serving as an Army nurse in Iceland, living in a Quonset hut and skiing over to nearby hot springs, I practiced seeing Mom as my friends had seen her—an adventurous, patriotic, curious, and caring person. I realized I had started taking these qualities for granted!

How can I use the story to build a conversation with Mom?

From studying creative people, I realized that embracing limitations can actually inspire creativity. “We need to first be limited in order to become limitless,” says artist Phil Hansen. Filmmaker Martin Villeneuve says, “If you treat the problems as possibilities, life will start to dance with you in the most amazing ways.”

There’s an art in coloring inside the box. I experimented:

How many times could I answer the same question in a different and interesting way?

How often could I ask a new question about a familiar story?

What unique comments might lead us to another conversation?

How can I use the story to connect Mom to others?

Sharing the story meant sharing the marvelous qualities of my mom and celebrating her rich history. I wrote down her oft-repeated story and sent it to my relatives. When friends asked me how Mom was doing, I told them and I added in the story. This widened and enriched our conversation, taking the focus away from Alzheimer’s and concentrating on my mom’s stellar qualities.



What is one of your signature stories?


  1. forumvoice on October 22, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    Such great ideas, Deb. Wonderful post. Pat

  2. carolekatsantoness on October 23, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    It was often late evening or wee hours of the mornings when Mom would awaken me to join her and Dad (deceased many years) for tea or a meal. These family gatherings granted me unexpected insight into my parents meaningful and loving relationship. Some of those shared moments couples keep to themselves were suddenly part of me.

  3. Janet Sunderland on October 24, 2013 at 10:29 am

    This is a really fine post, Deborah. You’re also doing creative things with the way you’re using clip art. I think this is one of the hardest things for caregivers (one of many, really) – listening to the same story over and over. But sometimes miracles happen and you glean a new piece or a new description. And sometimes even a different story you haven’t heard before. I know that happened in the last year of my mom’s life and I treasure them.

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