We knew that Raymond Jessurun was an amazing leader, organizer, and dementia advocate from our previous work with him in Philipsburg, St. Maarten. But we had no idea what a powerhouse performer he was until recently, when we presented with him at the island’s White and Yellow Cross Care Foundation.On our way to the event, Raymond told us, “We have a mixture of people coming together, people from all over the world, people of varying abilities. We want to invite joy into their lives. We want everyone to connect and have fun together.”Ron and I loved the idea and focused on music and laughter as a common pathway. When we arrived at the care center, which is managed by the White and Yellow Cross Care Foundation, the community area was filled with light: the windows opened to the temperate breeze and lush outdoors. Indoors, in a large and cheerful room, people gathered in a semi-circle. Some had lived in Philipsburg all their lives. Others had relocated from other islands or countries, including Holland, Curaçao, St. Kitts, and Guyana.Raymond opened our session by telling everyone, “I want you to teach Deborah and Ron something about yourselves and about our country.”We all shared specific songs that reminded us of our families. Raymond jazzed us up by sliding into the center of the circle with a rousing a cappella rendition of Come on Let’s Twist Again. After a few bars, people were dancing in their seats. We kept the movement going as we conducted When the Saints Come Marching In, first in a stately tempo, then fast. We talked about the times of the day we liked to sing. Several of the care staff said they liked to sing throughout the day. One woman enjoyed singing in the afternoons. Another sang a poignant favorite of hers, about how she longed for someone to hold at night. She received a heartfelt round of applause.As part of our interaction about music and movement, we showed a video of Drum Safari engaging everyone in percussive activity during one of our KC Memory Cafes. We ended our session by giggling our way through some Laughter Yoga exercises, including drinking a delicious, no-cal, laughter milkshake.As a final treat, everyone serenaded us with a traditional national song, O Sweet Saint Maarten Land. (Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41capjzf7iQ) The ending stanza captures a taste of this beautiful country, but fails to mention its amazing people:“Oh I love thy Paradise,Nature beauty fairly nice,Oh I love thy Paradise,Nature beauty fairly nice.”
At first, the checklist of “can’t do’s” was daunting. No more playing the cutthroat card game Hearts. No more leisurely Scrabble sessions, with unabridged dictionary and bowl of fancy mixed nuts at the ready. No more hunkering in at the movie theater for a sparkling new release. With my mom’s dementia, so many of our traditional holiday activities simply wouldn’t work. So we had to think creatively and find ways to bring joy to the holidays with dementia friendly family activities.
We created a photography/collaging/ scrapbooking project with a Thanksgiving themed story that starred all of us, The Little Kitchen that Could. I wrote up a simple story that featured a world famous chef, my brother, a series of sous chefs, the rest of the family, and my terrified pots and pans. Terrified because after a quiet life of heating up an occasional cup of water for tea, they were being forced into actual cooking. We all pasted faces on the pots and pans, posed for photos, and added ideas to the storyline. Once we developed the pictures, we sat around the dining room table and put the scrapbook together, while listening to my parent’s favorite old 40s melodies, and eating our traditional fancy mixed nuts.
This project gave our gatherings a new focus, helped us adapt treasured traditions and transition to new dementia
Adding “traditions” enriched our family gatherings.
Here are some additional ideas to cheer on your family.
- Create a holiday play list to cheer you all on. If you’re prone to winter blues, include songs that brighten your spirits. If you don’t celebrate the holiday, use favorite winter or seasonal songs. Listen to these songs with your partner who has dementia and with family and friends.
- Create a large print sing-along book for seasonal songfests. Include family favorites, personal seasonal tunes, and other tunes that are fun to sing or hum to.
- Invite talented relatives or friends to share their musical or dance abilities.
- If your partner likes animals, invite well behaved pets to come to your gatherings, offering a creature to nurture and observe and admire.
- Create a family “giving back” project you can all be part of, so your partner is able to contribute to others. This can be as simple as icing cookies for a women’s shelter or making dog biscuits for an animal shelter.
- Share favorite poems, by reading them call-and- response, one person reading, “T’was the night before Christmas,” and others repeating the line. Create your own family poem, as something to include in your holiday card or on your social media.
- Add in laughter. Use the ha ha chorus, substituting “ha ha’s” for the words of favorite songs. You’ll find yourself chucking within seconds.
- Arrange flowers together for a centerpiece, paying attention to colors, textures and aromas. Set the table together.
- Play favorite music and talk about it, saying, “What does that song remind you of?”
- Create a Taste Book, a scrapbook of favored recipes and memories around these foods. Plan to make or bake a recipe or two together.
Several esteemed experts and organizations helped me create this list of dementia friendly holiday activities. For more information about their, visit:
Natasha Goldstein-Levitas, MA, BC-DMT natashagoldstein.com
Dan Cohen Music and Memory
Gary Glazner Alzheimer’s Poetry Project
Dr. Madan Kataria Laughter Yoga
The team at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America
Nettie Harper and Kelly Gilligan Inspired Memory Care, Inc.
Judith Fertig, novelist and cookbook author Judith Fertig
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.
Ron and I were already champions of Dan Cohen’s world-changing Music & Memory program, which is featured in Connecting in the Land of Dementia, but we had never met Dan in person. The moment we learned we were going to New York City, we reached out to Dan and he agreed to meet with us.
Dan is a prime example of one collaborative person making a difference for thousands. Eighteen states have already funded Music & Memory rollouts as a best practice approach for care facilities to improve quality of life for persons with dementia. In Toronto, everyone who is diagnosed with dementia receives a free iPod so they can enjoy personalized music. Dan and his team have trained 5000 dementia care managers, who understand how effective this program is. He is currently collaborating with hospitals, hospice, and prisons, as well as long term care communities.
Here is some of the wisdom he shared with us.
“We all need to create our personal play lists now,” Dan says. “Music makes any healthcare encounter better. Whether you’re waiting in the doctor’s office, going into the hospital, attending rehab, or moving into a care community, you’ll have a more comfortable experience when you are able to listen to favorite songs.”
Read more about Dan’s programs in Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together. Order your copy from your favorite independent or online bookstore.