Monthly Archives: December 2014

Three Reasons to Give Life Meaning by Giving Back

IMG_0491Even when she was traveling the globe, designing and creating family-oriented projects, such as children’s museums, farms and gardens, Vicki Stoecklin made time to volunteer. She’d work on projects in Thailand, Saudi Arabia, and China, but whenever she was home in Kansas City, Missouri, Vicki shared her time and talents with non-profit organizations including the Girl Scouts, the local food bank, a boy’s home and more.

When Vicki was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, her life radically changed; she had to give up her dynamic travel schedule and her demanding and rewarding career. But she never considered giving up her volunteer activities; in fact, she consciously began seeking more opportunities to give back to her community.

Many of her normal activities were no longer viable: she couldn’t drive, read or cook. Her normally stellar math skills were impaired. Suddenly, instead of having to make every minute count, she had nothing but time. Within these limitations, she had to reframe her life and find new activities that stimulated and engaged her.

IMG_0494As Vicki pondered what to do with her life, she thought of Sheffield Place, a local shelter for single moms and their children. These women were struggling and rarely had enough money for any personal extras. Vicki decided to make necklaces for the mothers in the shelter. She enjoyed buying the beads and learning to string them in an artistically pleasing way, creatively combining colors, sizes and patterns. She also crafted a special gift bag for each necklace, decorating each with brightly colored stickers. When Vicki delivered her creations, the women and the staff were so grateful and so pleased. Their gratitude gave Vicki a sense of completion and connection.

One day, riding home from an appointment, Vicki noticed a dog shelter.

The thought floated into her mind: Wouldn’t it be fun to make blankets for the dogs?”

So, she made small, cozy blankets for the animals in the shelter. She enjoyed picking out colorful flannel, sizing it, then cutting fringe around the edges, and tying two pieces of fringe into knots.

“Making these blankets was relaxing and therapeutic,” Vicki says. “The cutting and tying helped me maintain my fine motor skills and the easy nature of the project allowed other people to get involved.”

When friends saw the fabric lying across Vicki’s lap, they asked, “What are you making?” Vicki explained and soon her friends were sitting beside her, tying away.

“With my dementia, I have a hard time finishing a project, “Vicki says. “These art projects allow me to complete a craft and give me a sense of accomplishment. Plus, learning new skills stimulates my brain.”

For Vicki, being a productive person and making a contribution to society, rather than just sitting around, has given her a much-needed sense of creativity and purpose. She encourages others with a similar diagnosis to seek what brings them joy and open up to new ideas and activities.IMG_0506

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Finding ways to give back offers people a sense of purpose and a connection with others.  Seek projects that are:

Tangible, finite and easy to finish
Fun to do alone or with others
Aligned with an organization the care partner can relate to
Connected to non-profits that can communicate gratitude

Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.

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The Ways the Cookies Crumble

cookie invitationI set my briefcase on my gritty kitchen counter and traced the raised gold lettering on the thick ivory card. “You are Invited to a Holiday Cookie Party,” the note read. The invitation was from a fascinating, creative, high–powered executive I had met several months ago. I was surprised and thrilled that she had invited me to such a gathering.

Each woman would bring a batch of home-baked cookies, she wrote. We would then get to sample all the cookies and bring a bag of treats home to our families. I adored the idea of getting to bring my teenage daughters such an array of home-baked sweets. I envisioned a room filled with charming baskets of star-shaped sugar cookies, generously topped with red or green frosting. I imagined a jolly basket of Santa cookies and a fragrant ginger-scented array of reindeer cookies. I fantasized about thumbprint cookies, shaped like snowflakes and gooey with jam, and about silky buttery sandies melting in my mouth. And…

cookiesThen I realized the implication; these holiday cookies would not only need to be beautiful, creative, and delicious, they would need to be presented in festive and unusual ways. I had never really made anything other than the occasional clumpy chocolate chip, peanut butter, or oatmeal cookie. Why hadn’t my mother been a more glamorous baker, I fretted, as I rummaged in the refrigerator for something to make for dinner. She only made the plainest of cookies—date crumbs, peanut butter, and chocolate chip. As I boiled water for pasta and heated up the jar of marinara sauce, a number floated into my head and I dialed it.

“If I go to this party, will you help me with a recipe and a cute idea for presenting the cookies?” I asked my friend Judith, who was graced with five-star baking abilities.

“Of course,” she said. Judith’s aplomb would fit right in at such a gathering. Briefly, I wondered if she could attend in my place and just deliver my treats to me.

I told my daughters the good news—in several weeks we would have our own private holiday cookie festival. Since our sweets were usually made by some giant corporate entity, they were ultra-excited.

A week later, I received a thick packet in the mail. Judith had selected a number of “easy” recipes for me. I smiled as I looked over the pictures of adorable cookies with a cute holiday twist.cookies 2 I frowned as I read through the baking instructions; each cookie demanded its own specialized pan, gourmet tool, thermometer, or esoteric ingredient.

As the day of the cookie party neared, I had no recipe, no cookies, no plan, and nothing good to wear.

That night at dinner, I said, “I don’t think I can go to the party.”

“Why not?” Sarah said sharply. She was thirteen and took promises and plans very seriously. Plus, she had a highly sophisticated taste for sweets and was looking forward to expanding her repertoire.

“I can’t just walk in carrying a paltry tray of blobby looking chocolate chip cookies.” My throat constricted and I wished I were a mother who could whip up a butterscotch soufflé from ingredients that just happened to be in my kitchen cabinets.

“Why not?” my older daughter Jessica said. Even during the holiday season, she kept to her black-themed wardrobe. She looked Gothic and serious as she said, “Everyone else will be all silver bells and fancy sprinkles. You will represent the good old- fashioned approach to the holidays; your simplicity will be refreshing.”

I took a breath and considered her words. If worse came to worse, I could always pretend I never saw those cookies before in my life.

That evening, my daughters and I made chocolate chip cookies and put them in a tin lined with aluminum foil. In honor of the season, I unearthed a shiny red bow to top the tin.

Walking into the party was like walking into a fairyland. Christmas lights lined the windows and a sparkling tree spread its branches into the living room. The dining room table looked like the December cover of Gourmet magazine. Stars, hearts, Christmas trees, snowmen, all the icons of the season were glowing with icing and sprinkles. cookies 3Some cookies were nestled in hand-made wreathes. Others shone from star-shaped or tree shaped boxes. A miniature set of reindeer surrounded a bejeweled fruitcake. A galaxy of colorful star-shaped cookies decorated a tiered silver-server. I admired each display while looking for a quiet corner where I could tuck in my tin of chocolate chips. I finally settled them between candy cane cookies and gingerbread Santa’s.

cookies 5cookies 4

My hostess offered me champagne and the conversation flowed. Then she announced, “It’s time to gather the cookies.” She had a large silver gift sack for each of us and encouraged us to take several of each cookie. As I toured the table, I sneaked a look at my humble confection. What if no one took any? What if I had to bring the whole batch home? What if… The doubts daunted me as I filled my sack with delectables.

“Who made the chocolate chip cookies?” someone asked. The room quieted and my breath quickened. As the silence spread, I finally said, “I did.”

“What an interesting idea,” someone said.

“I never would have thought of it. It’s comforting. These cookies remind me of my mother and home.”

I smiled as I put three Santas in my sack and headed for the reindeer.

That evening my daughters and I had a magnificent holiday feast, consisting of cookies, cookies, and cookies.

“Here’s the strange thing, Mom,” Jessica said, as she leaned back, sated. “Your cookies are really just as good as any of them. Not as cute, but just as delicious.”

“More delicious,” Sarah said.

I smiled, thinking that about my mom’s cookies when I was growing up. Maybe there was something about the plain old recipes offered in the plain old way, so sturdy, so unglamorous, and yet so deliciously like coming home.

cookies 6

Here’s to a sweet holiday season!

Deborah

Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.

 

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An Old-Fashioned Holiday

This holiday story from Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey celebrates the spiritual aspects of living with dementia.
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When I walk through the doors of the nursing home, I find my mother in her wheelchair, right in front of the medication cart, right behind the central nursing station, where nurses, delivery people, staff and family members congregate. Mom is bent over, her baby doll lying across her lap. When I walk up to her, I ratchet up my energy and widen my smile. I am preparing to clown her into a reaction.

Later my father will ask if I think she recognized me.

“No,” I will have to tell him. “She did not recognize me. But she did smile.”

The smile is important.

My hand waving and head bobbing does its work: Mom does smile, and I can tell she is in her own current version of a good mood.

“Music in the dining room,” the activity board reads, so I wheel her in that direction. An elderly man with a red and white trimmed Santa hat passes us in the hallway.

santa

“Look Mom, there’s Santa,” I tell her.

Having been brought up Jewish, Mom never was all that enthralled with the Claus mythology and she has not changed.

A white-haired woman is in the dining room, busily setting up for the music program. Several patients are already gathered. The woman takes out a microphone, a boom box, an illuminated plastic snowman, and a small silver bell. I continue wheeling Mom down the far corridor, liking the sense of companionship I have from this movement.

As we stroll, a nurse carrying a plate of lettuce walks past us.

“She must have been a good mother,” she says, nodding at the way Mom is holding the baby. “She must still be a good mother.”

“She is,” I say.

I have never really said to my mom, “You were a good mother.”

Now I realize she was.

I can see that Mom is enjoying the ride. She loved movement when she was younger and was far more adventuresome than Dad when it came to airplanes, ski lifts, fast cars, and speedy boats. For her, biting breeze across the face was thrilling, not threatening. Until she became a mother, that is. Then she abandoned her pleasure in the heights and speed and concentrated on making sure we were slow, safe, and centered.

We roll back into the 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. jingle bells

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 from the memory care 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 smeared with butter and sprinkled with sugar and baked. When Mom used to talk about her mother, she always mentioned this special treat.  challah

Even when I was growing up, and we were the only Jewish family in our neighborhood, my mother still did not sing Christmas songs. She did not willingly go to Christmas parties. She let the holiday rush by her, like a large train, whooshing past, ruffling her hair and leaving her behind.

Now, I am singing Christmas carols to my Mom for the first time. She is smiling, though really not at me. But I am sitting beside her while she is smiling and that makes me happy. 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, nudging her, shaking a bell almost in her face, acting sillier and sillier. Each time, Mom lifts her head and widens her mouth for a second.

white christmas

For her finale, Thelda puts on a big red nose and sings Rudolph. When she dances in front of Mom with that nose, Mom laughs. For several minutes, Mom stays fixated on the scarlet nose, her face a miracle in pure enjoyment. I laugh too, so delighted to see Mom engaged and absorbed. Then, Thelda dances away and Mom’s face glazes back over.

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. holiday pic

Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey. 

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An Insider’s Guide to Savvy Smoothies: From Judith Fertig

The-Nutritional-Value-of-SpinachEver wish you could have an instant jolt of muscle and energy like Popeye did when he gulped down his can of vitamin-rich spinach? I asked renowned cookbook and fiction author Judith Fertig for some easy and healthy boosts of energy for worn out care partners. Judith agreed to share a few of her favorite smoothie recipes. They’re quick, refreshing, nutritious, and delicious.

Judith’s Secrets for Succulent Smoothies

Smoothies can be a caregiver’s caregiver. These blended drinks offer big nutrition in a small package, can be made in minutes, and make us feel like we’re doing something good for ourselves.

 

Smoothie recipes are like blueprints—they’re meant to be changed to follow what’s fresh, what’s in season, or what we feel like drinking. Berries, greens, melon, tomatoes, avocado, cucumber, celery, carrots and stone fruits like peaches and mangoes add antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals. A tablespoon or two of healthy fats such as milled flax seeds, hemp or nut butter can add richness to the flavor, while providing omega-3 fatty acids necessary for complete nutrition. For the finale, add a touch of sweetness from fruits, maple syrup, agave nectar or stevia, or fresh lemon or lime juice.

veggies and berries

The best way to mix a smoothie is to start with either a liquid or an ingredient with a thicker consistency, like yogurt, placed in a blender or high-powered smoothie mixer. Next, add the desired fruits or vegetables and flavorings. It’s better to start on a slower speed while holding down the lid tightly. Once everything is blended, increase the speed to high to achieve a more velvety texture. If the smoothie is too thin, add more frozen fruit or ice.

Smooth-fleshed fruits like mangoes, bananas, ripe peaches and nectarines blend more easily to a silky finish than do fresh berries. Tender, baby greens such as spinach, kale or chard virtually disappear within a smoothie; if using mature, rather than baby greens, cut out the stems unless the blender or mixer is extremely powerful.

Blending enough ingredients for two smoothies can yield a leftover serving to store in a covered glass jar in the refrigerator. To reactivate the full taste later, just turn over the jar and give it a good shake to re-blend the ingredients.

Brilliant Green Smoothiesmoothies

Yields 2 servings

2 cups water

4 cups baby spinach

2 cups chopped butter lettuce, escarole, or romaine

1 large banana, cut into chunks

The juice of a lemon

Combine the water, spinach, lettuce, and banana and blend using low to high speeds until smooth. Add lemon juice and blend again.

Peachy Watermelon

Yields 2 servings

2-3 cups watermelon, seeded

1 cup low-fat vanilla-flavored dairy or coconut yogurt

1 cup frozen strawberries

1 fresh peach, peeled, pitted, cut into chunks and frozen

Combine all ingredients and blend from low to high speed until smooth.

Cool as a Cucumber Smoothie

Yields 2 servings

1 cup apple juice

1 cup sliced sweet apple

¼ cup applesauce

½ cup sliced carrots

½ cup cucumber, peeled and sliced

2 cups ice

Dash of nutmeg or cinnamon (optional)

Combine all ingredients and blend from low to high speed until smooth.

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Sometimes after I eat something truly healthy, I develop a craving for something darkly chocolate.

If you have such cravings, you’ll want to pre-order Judith’s new cookbook Bake Happy, coming out in Spring 2015.

And if you crave something delicious to read, the first in her new fiction series, The Cake Therapist, appears this spring as well.

For more great gourmet ideas, visit her website: www.alfrescofoodandlifestyle.blogspot.com/

Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.

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Six Creative Thoughts on Acceptance

letting go of control

Recently we have had the pleasure of talking to people from various Alzheimer’s Associations. One piece of wisdom many of them have shared:   Accept persons living with dementia as they are, without trying to change them.

Here are a few quotes that remind us of the power of acceptance and an inspiring story from Annabelle Montoya of the Alzheimer’s Association, New Mexico Chapter.

Click here to hear a great story from Annabelle

accepting life as it isAcceptance

 

patiencehappiness

     monkey with bird

 

 

Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia:   Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.

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