Category Archives: Care Partnering

Using Creativity to Live Successfully with Dementia

“Creativity is evident in every one of us,” says Michelle Niedens, Director of Education, Programs and Public Policy, Alzheimer’s Association Heart of America Chapter. Every time I hear Michelle talk about the creative aspects of living with dementia, I am moved. I was so honored to have Michelle speak at my book launch for Connecting in the Land of Dementia. I treasured what she said about using creativity to live successfully with dementia and I asked if she would allow me to share her words of wisdom and caring with you. Here is her beautiful talk.

Using Creativity to Live Successfully with Dementia

by Michelle Niedens

It has been said that “we are helped by what is not, to use what is”.    In Alzheimer’s disease, there are some things that are not.   But welcoming this philosophy of using what is allows us to explore all the parts that are.   As part of projects focusing on creativity at the Alzheimer’s Association, I have heard many people talk about how they are not creative.   In one way or another, they find a way to let me know they believe they cannot create art, or stories or a collage or whatever forms of creation lay before them.    Yet if we allow our minds to really think about the place of creativity in our lives, we could make a case that it is evident in every one of us.   Whether it be building book shelves, writing poetry, the way we frame our words in conversation, the way we problem solve, the way we play with children, the way we garden and even the way we convince ourselves of things.  Life is both complicated and simple and requires creativity to survive.   It is almost as ever present as thought and breath.

In the poem, “the Necessary Art of Salvaging”, Barbara Lau writes;

In the dumbfounded middle of loss
We still manage to
Open mail
Feed the dog
Answer the phone.
The letter came the same day
My doctor announced
That the minnow heart inside me
Had stopped pulsing.
Back home I ate the lunch placed in front of me
And when the envelope fell through the slot
I opened it.  The handwriting said
That a poem I wrote months ago
Would be released on a polished
White sheet of daylight.
I will never think of it as a fair exchange
But at least I know how to salvage,
How to search through the rubble
For that one unbroken teacup.
In the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s disease, creativity can serve to challenge the mind in new ways, what some might call brain exercise.   It can allow the expression of the mixture of feelings in more comfortable ways or when there are no clear words to do so.    Creativity can connect people and move our center from the relinquishing to the replacing.
In middle stages, there is something lost in Alzheimer’s disease that many of us only wish we could shut off.  Somewhere in our frontal lobe, there is a part that tells us what we cannot do.    It inhibits us.   The part that tells us we would not like a food even before we try it.   The part that tells us we wouldn’t be interested in a play or movie just because of some small variable.   The part defines what we are willing to do or try or even to direct some interest in.  For some people that inhibition is significant.  It can be deeply embedded by early life expectations, culture, messages or even trauma.  We can appreciate that there are times that inhibition is a good thing.  But one only has to be around a person in the middle stage where such inhibition has been diminished to see the good side of that loss as well.
I remember one woman who would come to a poetry group with me every month.   She lived in a long term care facility due to the significance of  Alzheimer’s disease.   She was an only child, parents long gone.  She never married and never had children.  I surmised from her history that perhaps she had always struggled with understanding and interrupting social cues and likely never had an insight into her emotions that allowed her to sort through the depression and anger that periodically flared.   These tendencies did not disappear in Alzheimer’s disease, but what appeared was a person more open to others, less concrete in her interpretations and increasingly able to find ways to connect – always through creativity.   On her last day attending the poetry group, she brought me a clay pin she had made.  It was the shape of a heart – kind of.  It was lop sided with dents where her fingers had tried to mold the clay, painted red with places missed, and wrapped in a kleenix.   I still can picture her face as she handed it to me.  It is one of the most treasured pieces of jewelry I possess.
Another poem, written by Lois Hjelmstad, perhaps better summarizes the significance of incorporating creativity in the experience of dementia.
Pipe Organ
I am not a large woman
And I am aging
I have been diminished by cancer, surgeries and chronic illness
But when I sit at the console
And my fingers touch the keys
My spirit soars.
Here – in the glorious sound –
My muted voice sings again
My faded beauty sparkles once more
My waning strength shakes the rafters.
What I am trying to say is this.  There are all kinds of important ways that focusing on creativity adds to the lives of those with a dementia.  Creativity brings laughter and fun, which we all need.  Creativity brings connections to others.  It provides a mechanism to share feelings and thoughts when other avenues may not be available or as clear.  It can be the way that unfinished business is sorted and that we grow into someone we wanted to be.   In other words, creativity can add meaning.
When I talk with individuals diagnosed with a dementia and their families, conversations include understanding what is lost and making decisions based on those that are anticipated.  But what is most important is finding a way to successfully live each day.   Finding those pieces that allow the muted voice to sing again.   And let the waning strength shake the rafters.  #
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.

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Live Well with Dementia

“This is one of my favorite songs. What do you think of it, Fran?” We were sitting in Mom’s room in the memory care community, listening to a recording of The Very Thought of You.  Even though my mother could no longer answer this question, I liked hearing my father ask it.  He honored Mom as his long-time beloved conversational partner.  Through this simple action, he was helping her live well with dementia. His example helped me do the same.

This article by Karen Love, Executive Director of Dementia Action Alliance, reminded me of my dad’s positive outlook. It inspired and touched me and I wanted to share it with you.

Live Well with Dementia

By Karen Love, DAA Executive Director

In 1968, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson published groundbreaking research that showed teacher expectations of students became self-fulfilling prophecies. At the beginning of a school year, first and second grade students’ IQs were tested. The researchers randomly selected a group of students regardless of their actual test results and led the teachers to believe that this group was capable of great academic achievement. The teachers, perhaps unwittingly, gave the students with the presumed higher IQs more positive reinforcements.

At the end of the year, the students were retested. The group labeled high academic achievers did, in fact, show higher achievement than the other students. Robert Rosenthal summarized this research finding as – “What one person expects of another can come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” This outcome, retested and proven by many others over the years, has become widely known as the Pygmalion Effect.

The dynamics of the Pygmalion Effect have significant impact for those who want to live well with dementia. There is abundant anecdotal evidence among person-centered dementia care experts that the Pygmalion Effect similarly applies.  Family, friends, and others may have low expectations regarding what people living with dementia can and cannot do and how they can function and live. While they may not even be consciously aware of this view, these lowered expectations affect every aspect of the relationship. They don’t engage, interact, and provide opportunities for interesting and fun activities at the same level they would if their expectations were higher.

I experienced the Pygmalion Effect this past week at a memory care assisted living community. I saw a resident sitting alone, apart from the others. I asked a staff member about her and was told she had very advanced dementia.

“What does she like to do?” I asked.

“Nothing, she can’t do anything.”

I knelt beside her and offered a small pillow covered in a soothing, tactile fabric. She immediately started stroking the pillow and then explored the seams. Her expression turned sweet and serene.  Touching the fabric was comforting to her. As I was getting ready to leave, the woman’s daughter arrived. I introduced myself and described how much her mother enjoyed the tactile pillow.

“Mom was a seamstress and loves the feel of fabric,” her daughter said, smiling at her mother. “I should bring one of the lap quilts she made when I visit.”

Her daughter was reminded of something her mother liked to do and she felt grateful she could bring something that would please her mom.

I was reminded how important it is to have interesting and engaging items when we visit. Examples include scented lotion, a tactile pillow or fabric scraps, and an enjoyable short story to read aloud.

Helping someone live well with dementia invites us to open our eyes, our hearts, and change our mindset.  Instead of perceiving limitations, we can spark the Pygmalion Effect by setting positive expectations. We can help make living well with dementia a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Karen Love, gerontologist – Executive Director, Dementia Action Alliance – Powered by People with Purpose 

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.
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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.

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Adapting to Dementia: Laurie Scherrer’s Inspiring Story

“I’m having a slow day,” Laurie Scherrer says, when I call her Pennsylvania home for our scheduled conversation on adapting to dementia. “So bear with me.”

It was easy to bear with Laurie, as she is bright, positive, articulate, insightful, and authentic.

I met her during a telephone interview for the esteemed podcast, Alzheimer’s Speaks, which she co-hosted along with founder Lori La Bey. I was so impressed with both of the women’s insights and interviewing abilities, and I wanted to learn more about how Laurie managed her life with early onset dementia.  Here are some highlights from our conversation.

From Sales Leader to Closet Cleaner

How do you go from excelling in a distinguished business career as a top manager and sales leader to becoming an unemployed 55-year-old woman who can no longer do a simple math problem or weed her prized garden?

That’s what happened when Laurie Scherrer was diagnosed with early onset dementia in 2013.  After days of languishing at home, cleaning out closets, and feeling like a complete nobody, she realized she needed to take action. And being a woman filled with determination and creativity, she did just that, with her husband offering his unwavering support.

“I have a passion for excellence and the recognition that comes with it,” Laurie says. “Being Number One in sales drove me.”

Since she had nothing to push towards, she turned toward writing blogs and to her former passion for sewing, so she’d once again feel accomplished. Plus, Laurie wanted something tangible to give to her family members, something that said, “I love you.”

Forgetting the Curves and Going Straight

In her earlier days, before her career consumed much of her time, Laurie was an accomplished seamstress, reveling in creating costumes for church programs. She had loved sewing quilts and clothes and decided she’d return to her former hobby.

She sat down with yards of fabric, ready to cut quilting squares. But hard as she tried, she could not figure out how to cut the fabric. She was slumped over her sewing machine, weeping, when her neighbor dropped by.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Laurie said.

“I’ll help you,” her neighbor said.

She brought over a cutting board with lines in it and talked Laurie through the process of cutting the cloth.

“Once she helped me lay it out, I could do it again,” Laurie says.  

Laurie has since created blankets, pillowcases, burping cloths, and more for her family.

“The straight lines are working for me,” she says.

Noticing the Blessings

Laurie is making the most of her life. She treasures her glorious back yard and her deepened relationship with nature.

“Before, I was so busy, I never saw all the beauty around me,” she says.

She also treasures her worldwide friendships with people living with dementia, which she nourishes through video chatting and posting on Facebook. She and some chat friends recently started a virtual spiritual dementia café, where they read, discuss scripture and pray with and for people from all over the world.

Most of all she loves knowing she is giving back and helping others through her writing, speaking, radio hosting, and advocacy.

Teaming Up to Produce Great Results

Laurie and her husband work together to help her live a vibrant life. Here are their tips:

  • Have a designated place and time to escape to, with no phones or email, so you can talk, cry, and really express yourself.
  • Talk through the tough times. Notice when someone has a difficult day and figure out how you can improve things.
  • Work together to adapt beloved activities.  
  • Laugh as much as possible.
  • Be thankful for every good moment.

I know you’re going to want to know more about this remarkable woman and her tips for adapting to dementia.  Visit https://dementiadaze.com/about-me/

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.
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Sharing Your Caregiver’s Story

pen and paperMy mother’s Alzheimer’s drove me to write. My writing inspired me to speak. I have received enormous pleasure from connecting with people all over the world, sharing my stories from Connecting in the Land of Dementia and from Love in the Land of Dementia. Now, I’m offering you tips for sharing your caregiver’s story.

 

It All Started with Grief

When I initially realized the depth of my mother’s memory loss, I was shattered with grief.

Every day I went through this:

Visit with mom.

Drive home, wiping tears from my cheeks.

Stumble into the house, walk into a chair or table, and misplace my car keys.

Sit at the dining room table and stare numbly into space.

One day, during the “staring numbly” phase, my partner Ron said, “Are you writing down your feelings?” It was a smart and sensible thing to say; the sort of suggestion I might make to him in a crisis. I was, after all, a writer.

“I don’t feel like writing,” I said.

But his words stayed with me. The next day, I slightly altered my behavior.

Visit with mom.

Drive home, wiping tears from my cheeks

Stumble into the house, walk into a chair or table, and misplace my car keys

Sit at the dining room table and write numbly for 20 minutesimages

 

Pouring Emotions Out & Inviting Understanding In

I poured out my fears, anger, and grief. After doing this for a week,

I began noticing how interesting my visits with Mom were; we were explorers on a wild inner trek.

I started documenting our time together, sometimes even taking notes during my visits. I wrote about the challenges, humor and blessings. I wrote about my conversations with my father, with friends and family and with the aides, the nurses, the social workers. As I wrote, I saw there was much hope, promise and energy in my new world.

As I shared my work with friends and family, I realized I was chronicling my mom’s last years and capturing part of our family history.

Sharing Your Caregiver’s Story

How do you take a challenging part of your life and bring it to the page?    Here are a few simple tips:

Pour Out Your Feelings  images-1

Give yourself time to feel your emotions, whether it’s through writing, art, music or other expressive arts. Writing down your feelings helps you understand the depth of what you’re going through. For me, writing helped change my fear into curiosity.

Notice the Details

Write down the particulars, noting simple concrete facts. You are a researcher collecting data.

Uncover the True Story

Look for the universal meaning in your specific experience. How have you changed? How will the reader change through reading your words?

Ask for Feedback

Read the story aloud to someone and see how it sounds. What’s working and what’s missing? Ask colleagues for a professional critique. Think over their advice and decide what is right for you.

Celebrate your Accomplishment

Sharing your caregiver’s story takes courage.  Yet, for me, it is one of the most cathartic and meaningful things I  do.

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.

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Enjoy Dementia Inclusive Holiday Cooking

“Who prepared this delicious meal?” a friend asked during a holiday dinner.

I named my brother Dan, our head chef, first. Then I included the support team—myself, my mom, my daughters and nephews.

“Did I help?” Mom whispered as I passed her the mashed potatoes.

20151110-sweet-potato-casserole-vicky-wasik-9-thumb-1500xauto-427744“You sure did,” I told her. ”You mashed the potatoes, put the marshmallows on the sweet potato casserole, and mixed the fruit salad.”

“That’s good,” she said. “I like to help.”

Our desire to help and contribute to seasonal celebrations doesn’t end with a diagnosis of dementia. It’s lovely to linger in the kitchen together, preparing food for the holidays. It’s even lovelier when you can adapt and enjoy dementia inclusive holiday cooking so that people of varying abilities can participate.

Rebecca Katz, author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook, sees food as a great equalizer, something anyone can enjoy regardless of abilities. Fixing a delicacy for someone offers a tangible and delicious way to give back.

Here are some tips so you can enjoy dementia inclusive holiday cooking.

  • Leaf through a favorite family cookbook or recipe box and use the pictures and recipes as a catalyst for conversation. Ask open-ended questions, such as, ”What does that brownie recipe make you think of?” “What do you like about the holiday season?”
  • imagesSelect a special recipe to make together. Choose simple, safe and satisfying tasks, such as measuring, adding ingredients , stirring, and tasting.
  • Chose a time of day when you’re both rested.
  • Create a comfortable kitchen environment, by playing familiar seasonal songs you can both hum or sing along to. Reduce extraneous noise and distractions, such as a television in the background.
  • If you wish, take photos during the experience. That way, you can relive the adventure and share with family and friends.
  • Indulge in instant gratification, if possible, by sampling your work when the cooking is complete.
  • Even if the person living with dementia can’t help prepare food, he can still enjoy sitting in on the action and the conversation.

Whether you’re stirring a pot of orzo or dropping mint leaves into cool water, enjoy your time of creation and connection in the kitchen.

A longer version of this piece originally appeared on Joan Lunden’s excellent website:      Enjoy Dementia Inclusive Holiday Cooking.  Thanks to Sue Fitzsimmons, MS, ARNP, Judith Fertig, author of The Memory of Lemon, Kate Pierce, LMSW, Alzheimer’s Association Greater Michigan Chapter, and Rebecca Katz, author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook

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.

 

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