As we move into the holiday season, Ron and I think often of our parents who went through their last holidays with dementia: my mom Frances and his father Frank. We wanted to share the season with them in ways that felt safe, comfortable, and honoring so we gradually developed these tips. Recently, we shared the tips via email and had such a great response we also want to share them with you.
Several people wrote, “These ideas are good for anyone, not just those with memory loss.”
What great wisdom–to treat each person with the tenderness and consideration that we often reserve for someone going through a physical or emotional illness.
We’d like to share our tips and we’d like to learn from you: what other suggestions do you have for helping people feel connected at gatherings?
Eight Steps to Help People Living with Dementia Feel at Ease during Holiday Gatherings
- When you’re in a group, help the person living with dementia feel safe and comfortable by having a trusted friend or family member stay beside him or her, explaining the proceedings and fielding questions from others, as needed.
- Encourage people to say their name and maintain eye contact when conversing with the person who is living with dementia.
- Make sure the person can come and go from the group as needed. Create a quiet space where he or she can rest — or appoint a caring person to drive your loved one home when he tires of the festivities.
- Have something special for them to look at, like a family photo album or a favorite magazine.
- Choose background music that is familiar to them, music of their era played in a style they resonate with.
- Prepare a few of their favorite foods.
- When talking to them, don’t correct or contradict or try to pull them into the current reality. Simply listen carefully and let them talk.
- Appreciate them for who they are right now.
Here’s to a holiday season filled with grace, gratitude and generosity.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
The table was spread with an array of Czech delicacies: apple strudel, special sandwiches with flowers of ham atop fresh baguettes, a bountiful tray of strawberries, grapes, and apple slices.
“This is the way we welcome people here in Prague,” said Lucie Hajkova, social worker and coordinator of respite care for the Czech Alzheimer’s Society.
Ron and I were visiting the Gerontological Centre and the Czech Alzheimer’s Society, which are both housed in the same building. The two organizations work together to offer clients everything they need, from psychological counseling, to memory testing, to social work services, to healthcare. We came to learn and to present a laughter yoga session.
We gathered with staff members around the table to learn about the center, which was started in 1997 by Iva Holmerova, MD. along with Hana Janeckova, PhD. Hana was putting together training materials for caregivers when she was contacted by Alzheimer’s Disease International. They wanted to know more about her work and they invited her to an international conference in Jerusalem. That conference was a turning point. Hana left it inspired and determined to help Czech families that were dealing with dementia. She contacted Iva and both saw the need to offer education, diagnosis, support, and care for people living with dementia and their families in the Czech Republic. Today, both centers are flourishing.
We were impressed with the dementia services they offered, which included home care for people who need help with bathing, dressing, eating, exercise or more. The building holds a respite center. When families need renewal time, or when people living with dementia need extra care or healing time, they can stay in respite for up to a month. The Centre also hosts a day program that offers a variety of activities in a homey and comfortable setting,
Even more impressive than the Society’s services were its staff. Each had a passion for this work, a love for those who are living with dementia, and a compassion for their families.
We had a wonderful time sharing a laughing session at the day center—our first international facilitation. We sat in a beautiful circle of people living with dementia, staff, family, and friends. We couldn’t have done it without our translator, Eliska, who captured the energy and essence of what we were saying. And once we all started laughing, we were beyond the constraints of language. Click here to experience a bit of laughter in Prague.
Eliska Brouckova, psychologist, consultant/advisor for people with dementia and their care givers
Martina Matlova, Director
Petr Veleta, PhD, dancer, dance therapist
Marketa Splichalova, psychologist, consultant/advisor for people with dementia and their care givers
Eva Jarolimova, PhD, psychologist, consultant for people with dementia and their care givers
Hana Janeckova, PhD, co- founder of the Czech Alzheimer Society, head of governing board of Czech Alzheimer Society, University teacher, researcher
Lucie Hajkova, social worker, coordinator of respite care in homes of people with dementia.
“I’ve traveled the world. Our family moved a lot when we were young,” one of our guests told us, at our August Movies and Memories program. She and her husband bent over our world map and stuck stars on some of the many places they’d lived. Another guest sighed when he looked at the map and saw Vietnam. He had served in the military there. A couple talked about living in Berlin when the Wall came down.
Our Movies and Memories travel films included forays into Paris, Iceland, Capetown, and Seoul.
“It was relaxing just watching the scenes from Paris,” said Ah’Lee Robinson, director of the Kansas City Boys and Girls Choirs. He and his singers treated us to an inspiring concert, warming us up for the films.
“Oh dear, now I want to go to Iceland,” another guest said.
In between clips, we passed around exotic spices for everyone to smell. At the end of the movies and memories adventure, everyone took home a special “Passport” booklet, created by the library’s Emily Cox, so they could record impressions and memories. To experience the event, click here.
Here are some passport questions to discuss at home:
Share some travel memories.
What is one of the most beautiful places you’ve ever visited?
What’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled?
What country has the best food?
How many of the US states have you visited?
Thanks to our wonderful volunteers, Sharon and Julie, who brighten our events by bringing treats, making popcorn, and making everyone feel so at home.
Thanks to Craig Eichelman, State Director, AARP, for helping us spread the word about this program.
We are so grateful for the continuing support from the Kansas City Public Library. They are amazing champions for people who are living with dementia and their care partners. They also provide scholarships for hard-working people whose higher education has been interrupted by life circumstances. Their community programs benefit early readers, job seekers, and people who are new to KC. Ron and I use their books and other services every week!
Please join us for our next adventure — Moana. This movie is so inspiring and great for all ages.
How has television shaped our lives? Nick Haines, Executive Producer Public Affairs/News, at KCPT, helped us count the ways at our August Memory Cafe. Fifty people joined us for this witty and illuminating program, including some PBS favorites: Big Bird and the stars of Downton Abbey. Nick began by showing us a few of the 20 most iconic TV clips of our time, including the space landing, Johnny Carson’s farewell show, and the tragedy of 9-11.
Then we moved onto commercials. Does anybody remember when people dressed up to get on an airplane and domestic flights served hot food on real china dishes? How about a young Donald Trump starring in a Burger King commercial? The cafe crowed went crazy over a white-coated MD, starting that he and his colleagues preferred Camel cigarettes.
Nick had us guess the two most popular non-sports TV events. (Mash and Roots.) And he set us laughing with tag lines from various products, such as M&M’s, Frosted Flakes, and Alka Seltzer.
Nowadays, people watch on so many venues and are often not conversant with the same shows. But during our cafe, we were all tuned into the enjoyment of sharing laughter, memories, and ideas. Thanks to Nick for his great talk and to KCPT for all the marvelous programming and community work they do.
And thanks to all our teammates and community volunteers.
KCPT is one of the Kansas City Public Library’s many partners in programming. Our library is an amazing champion for people who are living with dementia and their care partners. They also provide scholarships for hard-working people whose higher education has been interrupted by life circumstances. Their programs benefit early readers, job seekers, and people who are new to KC. Ron and I use their books and other services every week!
You don’t need to be artistically inclined to enjoy our next cafe on September 21st. We hope you can join us.
Even before Tomislav (Tom) Huić, Vice president of Alzheimer Croatia had a personal involvement with dementia, he was helping the Croatia Alzheimer’s Society with their marketing. As a professional marketer and co-founder of a successful ad agency, he wanted to help the fledgling, all-volunteer non-profit, and he often offered them his professional expertise. Then his mother began having memory issues and Tom became more involved. Today, he is one of the three full-time volunteers who run the 20-year-old agency.
We met with Tom at the Hemingway Bar and Cafe in Zagreb, Croatia, wanting to learn more about ways the society was educating and assisting people across the country and the region.
“Every year, we offer a professional workshop,” he says. That workshop, plus donations, provides the Association’s only operating money.
Tom understands the importance of collaboration and education. With a grant from the European Union, he and partners created dementia training materials for nurses. They presented the information to healthcare professionals in parts of Croatia and Slovenia. The programs were well received and he is working on presenting them in other parts of the region.
Tom also created a partnership with pharmacists in Zagreb. When elders came in to pick up medications, they were invited to take a short cognition exam. Sixty percent of the participants failed the test and they were given contact information for the Society. But only a handful of those contacted Tom and his team.
“We still have stigma here,” Tom says. “Plus, many people mistakenly think memory impairment is a natural part of growing older.”
They are collaborating with nursing homes and with governmental health agencies to provide guidelines for memory care beds.
No money. No budget. Lots of ideas. Too few people and too few finances to implement them. The task ahead of Alzheimer Croatia seems daunting. But Tom and his team are not daunted. They are educating family and professional care partners through a variety of pathways, offering much needed information and support.
I am thrilled to be a contributor to Chicken Soup’s new book, The Empowered Woman. I’m going to be featured on publisher Amy Newmark’s podcast on May 25, where I talk to her about my “empowered” story and about the dementia journey. Click here to listen to the podcast. Amy is very inspiring and I wanted to share some of her One-Minute Tips to Boost Your Happiness,
Speaking of empowered women, 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. 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
Set 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.
Laurie Scherrer is a light in the universe. I met her on the radio, when she co-hosted the ground-breaking program Alzheimer’s Speaks, with Lori La Bey. I was instantly inspired by Laurie’s warmth, honesty, humor, and insights. Each time I talk to her, I have fun and I learn from her. Recently, I asked her, “How can I support you in the wonderful advocacy work you are doing?” Laurie answered, “You can repost this blog, What They Don’t Tell You about Dementia.”
Laurie’s post is not just inspiring: it could be life-changing for someone who is newly diagnosed with dementia. After reading it, you’ll want to subscribe to Laurie’s blog.
What They Don’t tell You About Dementia: by Laurie Scherrer, DementiaDaze.com
When I was diagnosed with dementia (Early On-Set Alzheimer’s and Frontotemporal Degeneration) the doctors told me and my husband:
- My working days were over
- I needed to “Get my affairs in order and see an attorney”
- The time would come when I wouldn’t recognize my loved ones
- For any additional information we should go to the Alzheimer’s Association Website
- I may experience “sun-downing” in the late afternoons
- Come back in six months to see how rapidly you have progressed
What the doctors SHOULD have told us:
- There are many things that can aggravate or enhance the confusion and agitation that comes with dementia. With observation and patience, you may be able to recognize what triggers these symptoms. For example noise, stress, over-stimulation or lack of sleep. These triggers are not the same for everyone.
- Once you recognize the triggers you may be able to find ways to lessen their impact. For example, use earplugs when in a store or restaurant to reduce the noise, keep gatherings small to avoid over-stimulation, and when needed take an afternoon nap.
- The more independence you give up and allow other people to take care of – the more dependent you will become on others. Change your thought process from “I can’t do this anymore” to “How can I accomplish this task (what changes or modifications can we make to assist me).”
- On days when you are using a lot of cognitive reserve your symptoms may be strong (usually in the afternoon). This is your brain saying it is tired and needs a break. Try listening to some music or taking a nap.
- It is OK to take some time to grieve for your losses and accept that life will change. Most people need to experience this after diagnosis and again as their abilities change. In addition to grief, you may experience shock, anger, denial and sadness. These are normal reactions that can help you come to terms with your disease and hopefully help you to move on.
- Get involved with others with dementia as much as possible. There are a number of groups that offer video chats with other people living with dementia so you can socialize, ask questions and encourage each other. dementiamentors.org offers a mentor program so you can have weekly chats with someone living with dementia.
- Stay active and socialize with old friends and new. Once you curl up into yourself it is hard to get out. Enjoy life, friends, family and activities for as long as you can.
- Build your passion to fight back! Sometimes it is the passion within us that drives us to continue fighting. Get involved in advocacy work to educate about dementia. Contact Dementia Action Alliance at daanow.org to get started.
- You will have good moments when you feel “normal” and think you should go back to work and you will have bad moments when the world is a fog (dementia daze zone). You may feel confused and disoriented and find it difficult to think. There will be times when nothing seems to make sense and you can’t remember how to do things and then the fog will go away (at least for awhile). It’s OK to admit you are having a bad day.
- Dementia is more than memory loss. You may experience problems with your balance, lights flickering in your eyes, hallucinations, develop fears, or smell things that aren’t really there. Don’t be frightened, keep track of any changes or strange feelings to see how often they occur
- Dementia can progress fast, but in most cases it is a long slow progression. You may want to keep your affairs in order, but by implementing changes and strategies you will be able to overcome many obstacles and live a beneficial and happy life for some time.
Since I’m sure your doctor said about the same thing as mine, I hope you find this helpful. Now go enjoy life – Live, Love and figure out how to make adjustments to over come your obstacles.
My motto is: I don’t want just to survive – – I want to live and thrive!
Love & Laughter,
If my mother were still alive, I would be taking her roses and chocolate this Mother’s Day. She would be delighted and her delight would magnify when my daughters and her great-grandchildren arrived. Love is such a beautiful glue, such a simple and strong way to stay connected. I wanted to share this story from Love in the Land of Dementia, as a way of celebrating our mothers.
The Woman She Was
My friend Karen gives me a gift: she says, “Tell me about your mother.”
We are sitting in a quiet mid-afternoon café and I let the question sink into me.
When friends occasionally ask me, “How is your mother doing?” I have different answers, depending on the situation. If we are in one of those conversations that are like confetti in brisk wind, I say, “She’s okay.”
If we are sitting across from each other and my friend is looking right at me, I answer, “She’s pretty deep into Alzheimer’s.”
“Does she recognize you?” she might ask.
“No, but she may recognize I am a person she likes,” I answer.
That usually ends that conversation.
But “Tell me about your mother,” is an invitation I don’t usually get.
“What would you like to know?” I ask.
She stirs her iced mocha. “Whatever you want to tell me,” she says softly. “I would like to know about her life and her interests.”
Since my mother has been in the nursing home with Alzheimer’s, I have seldom talked about the person she used to be. Occasionally my father and I reminisce about family vacations and outings. I sometimes ask Dad questions about our growing up days and the early days of their courtship. But I rarely think about the woman I knew all my life, the mother, grandmother, artist, gardener, compassionate friend, avid reader, bird-watcher, early morning walker, lemon-meringue pie baker. That woman is gone and I have spent a lot of energy learning to know and appreciate the woman who now commandeers her body.
As I consider what I want to tell Karen, I remember visiting my mom’s best friend, Bel, in California when I was a teenager. Bel, who was spunky and adventurous in a way that seemed so different from my conservative mother, drove me from Berkeley to the small resort where I would work as a chambermaid for the summer.
“Do you know how I met your mom?” she asked me, as we drove down the winding roads, past fragrant stands of eucalyptus trees.
“In Iceland, during the World War II,” I said. I had heard stories of the two of them taking a break from their work in the hospital by skiing, then stopping for a soak in a hot springs.
“No, we met earlier in Chicago. We were both nurses working the twelve-hour night shift. The hospital had a room with a couple of bunk beds so we could rest on breaks. One night I walked in there and heard the most heart-breaking sobbing. It was Frances, crying her eyes out. I asked her what was wrong and she said, ‘Nothing.’”
I smiled. That sounded like Mom, never wanting to admit anything was wrong.
“Then I asked her again and she sobbed out that her husband Sam had died six months ago from pneumonia. She was so sad she didn’t know if she could go on. A bunch of other nurses and I were going to Florida for a short vacation and I persuaded your mother to join us. But as it turned out, we never went; a week later I decided to join the Army and I encouraged her to come along. We’ve been best friends ever since.”
When I heard this story at the age of seventeen, I was too young to fathom my mother’s grief and despair. By the time I told Karen the story, I had some sense of what my mother must have gone through.
“Your Mom was really brave, to serve in the Army during wartime,” Karen says.
I feel a little swell of pride. Mom’s tales of traveling in the darkest night on the troop ship, with bombs falling nearby, were so familiar I had never considered her bravery and courage.
Now I tell Karen how my father, encouraged by Bel’s husband, wrote Mom a letter, telling her he was ready to marry a nice Jewish girl. Was she interested? Was she available?
After some correspondence, Mom surprised herself by agreeing to meet him in Chicago. At the end of the week, my father asked her to marry him. She considered the offer for three weeks and accepted. Their whirlwind romance was fueled by practicality.
“What a great story,” Karen says. “Your mother must be an amazing woman.”
Sparked by Karen’s interest, I let myself feel my love for my mother as she used to be. I am in tears by the time our conversation ends.
“Thank you for asking me about my mother,” I say to Karen.
“Your stories make me want to call my own mom and hear her stories again.”
As I drive home, I think of more “mom” stories to share with my children and my brother. I see myself, along with my brother and father, as the carrier of my mother’s sacred legacy. I imagine myself tenderly fanning the embers, adding dry leaves and crumbled paper, creating a blaze with each memory. I realize I don’t have to give up Mom’s old self: I can be her historian and her scribe, carrying her stories with me, and making sure they live on.
Throughout our journey in Vietnam, we met a number of inspiring elders. These include an 87-year-old public letter writer in the old Saigon train station, a 67-year-old woman carrying baskets of pomelos and bitter melons, a beautiful 74-year-old gardener hacking at weeds with a machete, a 100-year-old matriarch in a farming family, and an 83-year-old village chief. Because the life expectancy in Vietnam has risen over the last 20 years, its people are living longer. Along with that blessing comes an increased chance of dementia. Neurologist Trần Công Thắng. MD, and his team, Nguyen Tudny Vy and Le Thi Yen Vy, are dedicated to working with medical professionals and community members, educating on dementia.
“Many people think memory loss is just part of normal aging, ” Dr. Thang told us, when we visited him in Choray Hospital in Saigon. “We want people to understand that dementia is not a regular part of growing older—it’s a brain disease.”
Twenty years ago, few people were discussing dementia in Vietnam. But now, it’s a vital issue for two reasons. First, the country’s life expectancy has increased from age 64 to age 75. Second, many families no longer have seven or more children; they have two to three offspring. This intensifies the burden for family caregivers.
Dr. Thang is a researcher, speaker, educator, and a founding member of the Association of Vietnamese Alzheimer’s Disease and Neurocognitive Disorders. Through his classes and diagnostic clinics, Dr. Thang and his colleagues offer people much needed information and resources. He is partnering with a local rehabilitation hospital in creating a day program for those living with dementia. The program will offer cognitive stimulation and social engagement for those living with dementia.
Person by person, Dr. Thang is helping healthcare professionals understand the behaviors and issues associated with dementia. He hopes to make life better for family caregivers and their family members who have memory loss.