“How long have you been together?” the younger couple asked Ron and me.
“Twenty-two years,” we answered.
“Wow!” they said. They’d been in love for seven months and our decades-long romance must have seemed exotic and slightly unbelievable.
“What are the secrets of a good relationship?” they asked. “Please share your wisdom.”
First, Ron and I basked in the idea that two people believed we possessed actual wisdom! Then we shared our insights.
How We Learned about Love
Our insights came from growing as individuals and as a couple during our wonderful long relationship and from earlier relationships that had helped us become our true selves. We also learned from watching our parents maintain their relationships in the face of dementia.
When Ron’s father Frank was in a memory care unit, Ron’s mom Mollie told her husband, “I love you so much.” Frank replied, “Not as much as I love you!.” Those were some of Frank’s last words and that sentence stayed with Mollie through and beyond her grieving.
During my growing up years, my father was circumspect in declaring his love for Mom. But when she slipped into dementia, Dad showed me what a true romantic he was. He treated her like he was courting her; he showered Mom with compliments and kisses and frequently he expressed his love for her. Even when she could no longer talk, she still enjoyed her favorite foods—he faithfully fed her sliced strawberries and chocolate candies.
Love Me Tender, Make Me Laugh, Always Have My Back
My parents were my role models and I also learn an enormous amount from the couples I interview every week for the love story column I write for the Kansas City Star Magazine. Here are some of the qualities people most love about their life partners and spouses.
Loves me just as I am
Takes care of me/Always has my back
Makes me laugh
Shares my values/ Complements me
Works hard/ Is honest and reliable
Always puts other people first/ Always puts me first
Inspires me to be better/ Appreciates me
Love Lights the Way
Some months ago, Oprah had author, visionary and cultural mid-wife Jean Houston on her TV show. “What do you wish people knew?” Oprah asked Jean.
“I wish people knew how powerful love is,” Jean answered.
That was one of the grandest lessons from my journey with my mom through her dementia: the power of love. Her love lasted all her life, far beyond her memory of things and people. Her love was a spark that lit up her life and mine.
“I keep thinking I should do more to help Mom as her Alzheimer’s progresses,” a friend recently told me. “I visit Mom in Chicago every month but I worry that’s not enough. Yet I have my work and my family here in Kansas City. I’m torn in two and the stress is eating me up.”
It’s so difficult to be a long distance care partner. I was lucky: my parents moved close to me when Mom was diagnosed with dementia. Yet even though I was nearby, I shared some of the stresses my friend described. My stomach hurt most of the time. As I dashed around the house, getting ready to go see Mom in the Memory Care Unit, I frequently bumped into furniture. I found myself mentally drifting away during meetings and unable to concentrate when I sat at the computer to write. And even though I had wonderful, supportive friends, I often felt an aching loneliness. Later, I learned these were normal symptoms of caregiver’s fatigue.
I asked my friend Linda Moore, psychologist, community leader, and author of the book, “What’s Wrong with Me?” to tell me more about recognizing and managing such exhaustion. Here are some of her insights.
Three Areas Where Stress Screeches You to a Halt
“Your body is the early warning system,” Linda says. “But most people try to ignore the on-going tiredness, low energy, muscle spasms, unfamiliar aches and pains, and GI issues.”
Emotional and Spiritual
Often, after I’d spent hours solving problems around Mom’s care, I had a heavy feeling of disconnection and a dull anger. Nothing mattered and I felt sad, rootless, and lonely. But I kept going.
“Care partners tend to push past their feelings,” Linda says.
“Poor concentration is one common sign of stress,” Linda says. When friends say, “You’re just not acting like yourself,” it’s a cue to slow down and drink a cup of soothing tea, read a short magazine article, or phone a friend. Other stress symptoms include procrastination and isolating yourself.
Fight Breakdown with the MEE Plan
“Meditate, even if it’s just for a minute,” Linda advises.
Sit quietly, count to four as you breathe in and count to six as you breathe out. Watch your thoughts wiggle around. One minute of meditation calms you, five minutes energize you, and twenty minutes of daily meditation can center you and give you a greater sense of well-being.
“Everybody knows it works and no one wants to do it,” Linda says. Even when you’re so tuckered out that your fingernails feel heavy, movement matters. Five minutes just walking around the house or prancing around to “Dancing Queen” can ratchet up your energy. Fifteen minutes of walking can lift your mood. Even a jog up stairs or unloading the dishwasher can shift your energy.
Is a banana really as delicious as a dark chocolate truffle? Many would say no. But most would agree, the banana is better for you. Even if you often eat on the run, choose fruits and vegetables to snack on. Throw in salads, soups and nuts. And don’t forget the truffle: be sure you indulge every so often in a comfort food you really adore.
Lastly, Linda advises, “Don’t give away your personal power: ask for help when appropriate and learn to say no.”
For more information about keeping your personal power and reducing stress, visit
Dr. Linda Moore is a psychologist, author, speaker and consultant in Kansas City. She specializes in the psychology of women, stress management, and leadership.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
Several years ago, we spent an evening in Zion National Park in Utah looking for shooting stars.
“There’s one,” someone said.
“I see it!” someone else said.
I saw only the regular stars, which were also gorgeous but not quite as exciting.
“I can’t see any shooting stars,” I finally confessed.
“Here’s how you spot a shooting star,” our friend Ron told me. “You soften and widen your gaze and stare off into the middle distance. You’re looking at everything and nothing. That way you’re open to that sudden flash of light and movement.”
I didn’t see the flash of light from a shooting star that evening, but I did have an idea flash. Looking for shooting stars is like inviting out creativity. You open up your focus, relax, put yourself in receiving daydreaming mode and wait for something marvelous.
Three Tips for Noticing the Stars
For me, the art of being a care partner was an exceedingly creative endeavor. Much of the time was fraught with focus, dedicated to detail. But when I remembered to soften and widen my gaze, I was able to see my mom for the star she was, even when she seemed light years away.
Here are some tips for your own personal “star-gazing:”
Sit quietly with the person who has dementia. If appropriate, hold hands.
Let go of your history and your expectations. Appreciate her just as she is.
Open your mind and heart: be receptive to whatever flashes of light may come your way.
This morning, “My Girl” is playing in my head. Yesterday’s tune was “You are my Sunshine.” Music has always woven through my life, a gift from my father, who in his earlier years, worked as a DJ at various radio stations.
Music often worked its magic with my mother during her Alzheimer’s journey. This short excerpt from my story, Bringing Magic to Life, takes place in a memory care unit.
Rochelle sticks in another tape and soon Stardust is playing.
Mom looks up and I offer her my hand.
“Want to dance?” I ask her.
“What else,” she says, standing up.
My parents have danced to this song many times, my mother coaxing my father onto the dance floor. I hold hands with Mom and move back and forth to the music. She laughs and does the same. I twirl her, and she walks around in a jaunty little circle. For a moment, her energy and charm have returned. I feel like I have found my long-lost mother. …
Four Ways to Inspire Melodic Moments
Dr. Glenn Smith, a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist who specializes in Alzheimer’s disease, recently wrote about Alzheimer’s and music in the Mayo Clinic newsletter. (MayoClinic.com)
“Limited research suggests that listening to music can benefit people who have Alzheimer’s disease in various ways.
For example, music can:
- Relieve stress
- Reduce anxiety and depression
- Reduce agitation
Music can also benefit caregivers by reducing anxiety, lightening the mood and providing a way to connect with loved ones who have Alzheimer’s disease — especially those who have difficulty communicating.”
Here are a few of his suggestions:
- Think about your loved one’s preferences. What kind of music does your loved one enjoy? What music evokes memories of happy times in his or her life? Involve family and friends by asking them to suggest songs or make playlists.
- Avoid overstimulation. When playing music, eliminate competing noises. Turn off the TV. Set the volume based on your loved one’s hearing ability. Opt for music that isn’t interrupted by commercials, which can cause confusion.
- Encourage movement. Help your loved one to clap along or tap his or her feet to the beat. If possible, dance with your loved one.
- Pay attention to your loved one’s response. If your loved one seems to enjoy particular songs, play them often. If your loved one reacts negatively to a particular song or type of music, choose something else.
To learn more about Dr. Glenn, visit http://www.mayoclinic.org/expert-biographies/glenn-smith-ph-d/BIO-20025110
For more about the benefits of music, read Dr. Glenn’s entire article.
To see our HERO Project that features music, visit
For me, part of being a care partner is letting go of worry and control and being open to intuition and flow. Here is a story from my life where I almost didn’t notice I was “in the flow!” Has this ever happened to you?
Opening to Answers
“Some people think it’s holding that makes one strong — sometimes it’s letting go.” -Unknown
Driving to the writer’s conference, my hands were sweating and my throat was tight. I had given workshops before, but I felt very nervous about this one. What if I had nothing to say? What if nobody learned anything? What if they looked at me with bored and indifferent eyes?
As I drove down 55th street, I thought, “You have prepared and you are going to do your best. Now it’s time to ‘let go and let God.’” I took a deep breath and felt a little better.
Then my inner worrywart boomed, “You could have tried harder, practiced more, done more research. You don’t have one original thing to say.” By the time, I pulled into the parking lot the steering wheel was damp with my sweat.
The conference was held in a mid-town church and the lobby was bustling with people.
“Your room is down the stairs and to your right,” the woman in charge told me.
I walked down the stairs and to the right. I saw a bathroom and a coat closet. I opened one door into a maintenance room, stacked with toilet paper and paper towels, brooms and mops. Then I noticed another room: tucked into an obscure corner — it was a small chapel. I walked in, taking in the serenity, the rich maroon color of the chairs, the soothing pattern of the stained glass windows. I felt calm and centered in this room. I tiptoed to the pulpit and stood behind it, like I had something holy to say.
Then I realized, I was going to be late for my class, Frantically, I retraced my steps, but I couldn’t find any room large enough for a class. I raced upstairs and found the woman again.
“I can’t find my room,” I told her. “There’s only a chapel in that area.”
“That is your room,” she said, “You’re teaching in the chapel.”
I walked back down slowly, smiling all the way.
My prayer, to let go and let God, had been answered in a most concrete way. I had almost been too busy worrying to notice.
As my mother’s Alzheimer’s progressed, her spiritual openness increased.
This is an excerpt from my book Love in the Land of Dementia that describes Mom’s new way of celebrating the holidays.
We roll back into the 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 into the skilled care portion of the nursing home.
“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.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” ― Pablo Picasso
Sharing the arts is one of our passions. We so appreciate the insightful work of Michael Samuels, M.D., co-founder and director, Arts as a Healing Force. These are his words, which originally appeared in the Huffington Post:
Anyone can use the healing power of art to reach a loved one living with Alzheimer’s disease. All it takes is an ordinary person who loves and cares for another. A recent article in the Boston Globe says, “Making music, painting or dancing — and seeing or hearing it — may be the most effective treatment for dementia to date.”
There has been new exciting research about art and Alzheimer’s that sheds light on this remarkable way of healing. Music and art stimulate areas of the brain not affected by Alzheimer’s and accesses memories through routes that avoid affected language centers. Art actually helps the brain navigate new neurological communication pathways. Even if the Alzheimer’s patient is unresponsive and can’t remember where they are, a song can stimulate the sweet memories of youth that lay long buried.
Any art that the Alzheimer’s patient enjoys will open a huge new way of healing — for yourself and for the one you love.
You can do it. Professional training is not necessary; anyone can be an artist/healer for a person living with Alzheimer’s.
Keep it simple. Music is the easiest and most researched way to reach a person with Alzheimer’s but you also can use painting, sculpting and poetry. Gear your art to the person’s skill level at the moment.
Go into the past to heal the present. Art evokes memories. Any art that brings up a memory is powerful. A song from a past event evokes the memory of a first kiss. A painting or photograph of the family home can help evoke childhood memories.
Make it stimulating. Choose bright colors, collage from old photograph albums, lively music, dances.
Make art in a sacred space. Make the place as wonderful and beautiful as you can. Play soft music in the background — make the lighting bright enough to see easily, add scents from aroma therapy and even make a small altar with loved objects from the past.
Support with loving kindness and compassion. Make all your comments nonjudgmental and loving. Art and healing is about process, not the product. It’s all about love and relationship.
Ask them to tell you the story about the artwork. If your loved one can still speak ask them to share the memories that come with the art, music or words.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, music and art can enrich the lives of people with Alzheimer’s disease by allowing for self-expression and engagement even after dementia has progressed. Many organizations are using the power of art to help those living with Alzheimer’s. The Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) has an annual art contest at senior centers to encourage elderly people to stimulate their brains by making art. The I’m Still Here Foundation started Artists for Alzheimer’s initiative (ARTZ) that helps more than 10,000 Alzheimer’s and dementia patients attend arts events. This greatly enhances the lives of Alzheimer’s patients and reduces their symptoms.
Michael Samuels, M.D., Co-founder and director, Arts as a Healing Force
MICHAEL SAMUELS M.D. is a physician, artist, guided imagery specialist, and one of the foremost experts in body, mind, and spirit medicine today. He is the co-founder and director of Arts as a Healing Force. Samuels teaches at San Francisco State University’s Institute of Holistic Studies and is the author of 22 books, including the bestsellers The Well Body Book, Seeing with the Mind’s Eye, and the Well Baby Book. His latest book is HEALING WITH THE ARTS: A 12-Week Program to Heal Yourself and Your Community, co-authored by Mary Rockwood Lane, R.N., Ph.D.