Even 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.
As 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.
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.