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FEATURE - November 2016 - Kansas City
Finding Creativity in Surprising Places: Connecting in the Land of Dementia
by Deborah Shouse
“Did she recognize you?” my father asked, when I called to tell him about my visit with mom.
“No,” I said. “She didn’t know who I was. But when I sang Oh What a Beautiful Morning, she smiled, clapped her hands, and she hummed along.”
My father was happy I’d had such a good visit. I was happy. My mother was living with dementia and each moment of connection was priceless.
My experiences with my mother inspired me to interview experts in dementia and creativity, seeking additional ways to stay connected. My book, Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together, features their ideas, a myriad of fascinating and easy activities that set the stage for those quality moments. These pioneers believe that creative activities benefit us all, boosting energy and adding meaning and purpose to our lives.
The following ideas from local luminaries are excerpted from my book. I hope they will enrich your lives.
Cooking Up Conversation
As her husband Charlie moved deeper into dementia, educator Elizabeth Miller bought a cookbook popular during his teenage years in the 1960s. They read through the recipes and with Charlie as her sous chef, Elizabeth made dishes such as chicken cacciatore, tuna casserole, and spaghetti and meatballs. They invited Charlie’s childhood friends over for a meal and talked about old times while they chowed down on Johnny Marzetti Casserole, a fancy term for elbow macaroni and ground beef.
Getting a Taste for Family Recipes
Judith Fertig, a novelist and award-winning cookbook author, deepens connections by creating a “taste book,” a compilation of family recipes, photos, and stories.
“Recipes are part of a family’s legacy,” Judith says.
Together, you can make a favorite recipe, photograph the process and the finished dish, write down the story of the dish, and add the finished page to your book. Taste books are also conversation starters. When looking through them, add to the sensory experience by sharing aromatic herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, vanilla, and rosemary.
Making Movies Meaningful
Vicki Stoecklin, a former designer of children’s projects who lives with early onset dementia, created her own cinema program.
“After I lost track of the plot during several movie watching sessions, my husband asked if he should stop every ten or fifteen minutes and talk about what we’d seen,” Vicki says. “I loved the idea. I could relax while I was watching, knowing he would soon clear up any confusion.”
Here are some additional ideas for enjoying movies together:
Talk about the film in advance, discussing the plot, the actors, and memories you have of the show.
Take breaks to talk about the film and enjoy snacks.
Invite others to join you. A film can bridge generations, giving parents, children, and grandchildren something to share.
Exercising as Medicine
Jeff Burns, MD, co-Director of The University of Kansas’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center, is studying the impact of exercise on the brain, with a goal of learning how to prevent, delay, or slow the advance of dementia.
“We view exercise as medicine,” he says. “Our observational studies show that people who exercise perform better on cognitive tests, have healthier brains on their brain scans, and show a lower long-term risk of developing dementia.”
Conducting a Musical Experiment
Marie Marley’s beloved partner Ed was a devotee of classical music. One day, when conversation with Ed wasn’t working, Marley put on some Mozart. Ed instantly began moving with the music. Knowing how Ed loved a flamboyant conductor, Marley waved her arms, tossed her head, jumped up and down, dramatically urging the invisible orchestra to play their hearts out. Ed was thrilled. Afterwards, he told her, “That was really beautiful.”
“Listening to music became a meaningful way to spend time together,” says Marley, PhD, who is co-author of Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers.
Inviting out Storytelling
“Music, art, reading, poetry, and writing really allow people with dementia to speak from the heart,” says Johnna Lowther, director of Life Enrichment for Tutera Senior Living & Health Care. “Our goal is to write a story that each person contributes to.”
To create your own story:
Come up with an evocative prompt such as, “A man holds a key to something important. What is that important something? Who is the man?”
Welcome all ideas and write down each answer.
Ask additional questions, such as “Who will try to steal the key?” Periodically read aloud the answers so people can get a sense of the story.
Use this story telling activity during meal times, car rides, visits or family gatherings. You don’t even need to write everything down; you can just enjoy the process.
Igniting Interesting Ideas
Deb Campbell, founder and executive director, Arts & AGEing KC, shares tips for orchestrating a dynamic brainstorming session.
Put several easily recognizable items into a box or bag. Consider a watch, a beach ball, a serving spoon, or a washcloth.
Tell your partner, “Let’s think of new things to do with these familiar objects.
All ideas are welcome, the sillier the better.”
Ask your partner to pull out an object. If your partner doesn’t recognize the object, you might say, “This is a spatula, normally used in cooking. What else could we use this for?” The open-ended questions invite creativity.
Allow plenty of time for contemplation. If needed, jumpstart the creativity by offering your own thoughts.
Cheer on every idea.
As I worked with local, national, and international experts, I realized how alike we all are, regardless of our cognition. Each of us wants to be treated with compassion and patience. We want to celebrate our gifts and shore up our strengths and not constantly be grieving our losses. We want to live with meaning, purpose, and generosity. Staying connected through creative activities enriches all of us.
Deborah Shouse is a writer, speaker, editor, and dementia advocate. Deborah and her partner Ron Zoglin raised more than $80,000 for Alzheimer’s programs by donating all proceeds from her initially self-published book, Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey, to dementia-based non-profits. Central Recovery Press has since published an updated version of that book. Her latest offering, Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together, presents imaginative ideas that help you stay linked throughout the dementia journey. To learn more, visit DementiaJourney.org