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Finding the Holiday’s Spirit

This story from Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey celebrates finding the holiday’s spirit. Here’s to a season of peace, light, joy, and meaningful connections.
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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.

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“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.

We roll 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.

Thelda moves on, singing to each of the residents 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.

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.

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.

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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One-Minute Tips to Boost Your Happiness

For three weeks, a small pile of books huddled on the floor of my bedroom, next to the bureau. Every time I saw those books, I thought, “I should put them away.” But I walked past them, too busy. Until I read Amy Newmark’s new book, Simply Happy. One of her tips challenged me. “What can you do in one minute?” I took the “One-Minute Tips to Boost Your Happiness” challenge. I swooped into the bedroom, scooped up the tomes, and put them in the bookcase. Then I looked at the blank carpet and smiled. That quick action filled me with joy.pile-of-books

Amy Newmark left her high-powered career as a Wall Street analyst to take over the Chicken Soup series. After years of immersing herself in true stories of miracles, lessons learned, and hopes fulfilled, she wrote her own book, Simply Happy. I was so inspired by Amy’s insights, I asked her to offer a few ideas for busy care partners. Here are some of her “One-Minute Tips to Boost Your Happiness.”

Amy’s Insights for Care Partners

Counting Blessings Adds Up to Happiness

“The gateway to happiness is counting your blessings,” Amy says. “If you’re not grateful for what is in your life, how can you be happy?”

Scientific studies have proven that people who are actively grateful are happier, healthier, and more productive. Plus, they get along better with family members, colleagues, and others.

“You can easily learn gratitude,” Amy says.

To start, each day jot down three things for which you’re grateful. Strive for three different ideas each day. At the end of the month, you’ll have documented nearly a hundred blessings.

“Writing and speaking your gratefulness changes your perception,” Amy says. “You start looking for good things during the day. You can share your blessings with your partner and encourage him to consider his own.”

Some people drop the blessings into a box, and then read them at the end of the day or the end of the month.

Smiling Serves You

Smile even when you don’t feel like it. Often, when you smile, people smile back. This boosts everyone’s spirits and energy. If they don’t give you a grin, it doesn’t hurt you.

“Your smile will change the way people react to you,” Amy says.

Zipping from Zero to 60 Brings Joy

unnamedSet a timer for 60 seconds and zip through a task you’ve been putting off. File the insurance policy that sprawls across the dining room table. Unload the dishwasher. Take your vitamins.

“Doing even one of those tasks every day will lighten your spirits,” Amy says.

Dropping Perfection and Embracing Your Own Abilities

Abandon your pursuit of perfection and strive for your own version of excellence.

“When you try to be perfect, you can’t get a lot done,” Amy says. “For most of us, it’s better to do five things at 90 percent than one thing at 100 percent.”

I love Amy’s final piece of wisdom:

“Treat yourself nicely,” she says. “Use the fragrant soap you save for guests. Indulge in a rich bit of good chocolate or a fresh crisp apple. Put the good sheets you save for company on your own bed. Give yourself a tiny pleasure every day.” ##

For more happiness boosts, read Simply Happy.chicken-soup-for-the-soul-simply-happy-9781611599497_hr

Visit Amy’s website at www.amynewmark.com or www.chickensoup.com

Extra tip from Deborah: If you like to write, consider submitting one of your own life stories to a Chicken Soup book. I’ve shared my stories in dozens of their books and it’s such a meaningful experience. Go to www.chickensoup.com, scroll down to the bottom, and click on “Submit Your Story” to learn how.

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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Dementia Friendly Holiday Activities

At first, the checklist of “can’t do’s” was daunting. No more playing the cutthroat card game Hearts. No more leisurely Scrabble sessions, 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 new dementia friendly holiday activities.moment-clipart-0000067

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 friendly holiday activities we could all enjoy. Plus, we made copies of the booklet to share with long distance family and friends.

Adding “traditions” enriched our family gatherings. Here are some additional ideas to cheer on your family.

  • musicCreate 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.
  • 26951-laughing-is-the-best-exerciseAdd 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

DementiaJourney.org

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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Chocolate Boosts Brain Health!

cocoa-powderAs the daughter of someone who lived with dementia, I do a lot of things to boost my brain health. I try to walk 10,000 steps a day, along with other exercise. I eat blueberries and broccoli. I do super brain yoga squats, try to memorize a few words of Spanish, and think about taking harmonica lessons. I try new things, laugh often, and practice drawing. But a recent study revealed that I was intuitively doing something else that was cheering on my brain, something I hadn’t even counted. It turns out Chocolate Boosts Brain Health!

I recently encountered a fascinating study on the Harvard Health website, and was intrigued when I read this headline: Cocoa: a sweet treat for the brain?

ce_0214_cocoabeanpodImagine being in Italy and contributing to scientific research by drinking a luscious dark cocoa drink every day for eight weeks. Then imagine feeling even more lucid, vibrant, and healthy after that experience. That is the essence of the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in December 2014, with this flavorful title: Cocoa flavanol consumption improves cognitive function, blood pressure control, and metabolic profile in elderly subjects. (Note: It turns out some of the “elderly” subjects are as young as 61, an age some of us may argue is merely “middle-age.”)

A Chocolate Boost Makes Your Brain Boast
I am also in love with this Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study (MSLS), of 968 people that includes these mouth-watering assertions:

All cognitive scores were significantly higher in those who consumed chocolate at least once per week, than in those who never/rarely consumed chocolate.

“More frequent chocolate consumption was significantly associated with better performance on the Global Composite score, Visual-Spatial Memory and Organization, Working Memory, Scanning and Tracking, Abstract Reasoning, and the Mini-Mental State Examination,” said the research team, which included scientists from the University of Maine.

nibsMore Delicious Cocoa-flavored News
And another study from Loma Linda University, states:
“Dark chocolate, which is 70 percent cacao, is a major source of flavonoids –- powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components that are known to be beneficial to cardiovascular health. The California team’s initial studies at Loma Linda University have shown that absorbed cacao flavonoids penetrate and accumulate in regions of the brain associated with learning and memory.”

“We are tremendously excited about what these findings could potentially mean for brain health,” said Lee Berk, DrPH, MPH, who led the team. “This may open the door for potential restorative uses for individuals with memory/recall or dementia and aging-related issues.”

Never Forget To Boost Your Brainhot-cocoa-mix-012
I now have a remedy for those days when I’m too tired to exercise, too busy for a crossword, too cranky for a brain game. Or for when I simply forget. On those days, I’ll simply treat myself to a taste of the dark side. And hope it leads me towards the light.

Want to learn more?
http://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/study-confirms-brain-and-memory-benefits-from-dark-chocolate/

http://www.sciencedirect.com

http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/cocoa

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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Take a New Look at the Yellow Crayon

As we near Mother’s Day, I naturally think about my mom and all the different experiences we shared. This is an excerpt from my newest book, Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together. This book features stellar ideas from more than 60 experts in creativity and dementia. Though this is a story about the dementia journey, it’s also a story about something we all want: love and acceptance.

Take a New Look at the Yellow Crayon

Before he leaves for his outing, my father beckons me out onto the ramshackle porch of the rental cottage. He solemnlyimages-1 hands me a tablet of thick white artist’s paper and a pristine box of 24 crayons.

“I want you to get your mother interested in art again,” he says. “I believe she can still draw and paint, but she resists when I mention it. You’re the only one who can help her.”

My parents, my brother’s family, and my two daughters and I are on a family trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Mom has been struggling with forgetfulness and odd behaviors for a couple of years now. As long as Mom is near Dad, she seems happy enough. But when Dad takes even a short break, Mom’s mouth tightens and her eyes search wildly. “Where is …?” she asks, over and again, twisting her hands.

Today, my father is joining my brother and the children for boating and tubing. Since Mom doesn’t like such heat and noise, I volunteer to spend the day with her.

I nod gravely when my father hands me the “art supplies.” I seriously believe I, Super Daughter and Muse, can fulfill my father’s request to reunite my mother and her passion for art.

I haven’t yet accepted Mom for who she is now. I’m still grieving the loss of the mom I’ve always known and I earnestly believe that the best possible idea is to return her to the artist, mother, wife, and grandmother she used to be.

That afternoon, shortly after Dad leaves, I lure Mom to the small Formica kitchen table with coffee and chocolate chip cookies. I hand her a sheet of paper and take one for myself.2014-24 Ultra-Clean Washable Crayons, ColorMAX05 I spread the crayons out and say,

“Let’s draw.”

“Why?” she says.

“Because it’s fun,” I say, touching her hand and looking into her eyes, just as I imagine a muse might do. “Because you enjoy making art. You’re good at it.”

 

I hand Mom a yellow crayon imgresand I pick up a purple. I envision Dad’s beaming face when Mom hands him her sketch of yellow roses. I imagine his warm hug and his grateful, whispered words, “Thanks, Debbie. I knew you could do it. I feel like your mother’s come home.”

My wild colorful lines fill the page. Finally, I glance up, ready to admire Mom’s work. But all I see is a blinding sheet of yellow. She has scrubbed the yellow crayon across the page. No flowers, no independent lines, no blending of colors. I bite my lip, tasting bitter failure, and imagining the look of despair on my father’s face.

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That was before I had learned to let go of Mom as a representational artist and embrace her mellow yellow creation. That was before I accepted the challenge of journeying to my mom’s current world instead of struggling unsuccessfully to drag her back into mine. I finally did let go and embraced my mom as she was. Mom learned to laugh at her forgetfulness; she learned to communicate with smiles and gestures; she learned the art of living in the moment. And I learned along with her.  END HERE?

Today, if I could once again sit beside her coloring, I would simply enjoy the process and not set myself up as a failed Super Muse. I might just say, “I love the brightness of that color,” and not yearn for a bouquet of roses. I might see if she and I could draw something together. Whatever we did, I would cherish that shared time.

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

COMING SOON: CONNECTING IN THE LAND OF DEMENTIA: CREATIVE ACTIVITIES TO EXPLORE TOGETHER

 

 

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