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A Thanksgiving Love Story: Bringing Home the Gravy

Thanksgiving changed the year I went vegetarian. I did not mind giving up the tender, moist turkey or the savory oyster-specked stuffing. But giving up the flavorful flow of mushroom-laden gravy was quite another thing. I watched enviously as my family ladled the luscious liquids over their mashed potatoes, turkey and stuffing. As I nibbled dryly on my carrots, green beans and salad, my lower lip protruded. I felt left out and deprived.

My brother, Dan, ever alert to the pouting big sister, came up with a solution.

“Next year I will make special vegetarian gravy just for you,” Dan promised.

Years later, that special vegetarian gravy has become one of my favorite Thanksgiving rituals. I begin fantasizing about it the moment the autumn leaves turn crimson. I know that in mere weeks, my brother and his family will arrive and I will have my yearly boost of family and feasting, highlighted by gravy.

When my brother calls to tell me his travel plans, I write his arrival time and GRAVY on my calendar. The night he comes to town, we make the shopping list together, avidly discussing how many pounds of mushrooms we need for both the carnivore and vegetarian pots of gravy. I relish the early-Wednesday morning trip through the grocery store, where Dan and I and our children carefully select the foods we will be making the next day. We linger in the produce aisle, filling several sacks with gleaming white mushrooms and buying rustling yellow onions.

On Thanksgiving Day, Dan and I and other family members spend long, luxurious hours cooking. Dan mans the stove and I manage the slicing and chopping. Together we snap, peal, slice and dice the vegetables that will accessorize the turkey. I take special pleasure in wiping clean and slicing the mushrooms, then bringing my brother the brimming bowlful. When he has nodded his approval, I get out the old copper pot I bought in Germany in the early seventies. This year, Dan is improving his already amazing gravy. With his new immersion blender, he creates a rich base of caramelized onions, whose flavor surpasses that of the lowly vegetable cube. He adds in a little flour, then gentles the mushrooms into the onion broth. When the pot is bubbling with thickening nectar, he says, “Taste this and see what you think.”

I always think the same thing—“Wow, this is great.”

We are in a state of giddy and satisfied exhaustion by the time our guests arrive. We share grateful prayers with everyone and lay out the feast, including plenty of turkey-based gravy for the rest of the family.

Then comes the moment I have been waiting for: I sit down, my own personal pot of gravy poised by my plate. I cover the mashed potatoes, carrots, green beans, and salad with the aromatic concoction and I savor every bite. But more importantly, I savor the bounty, creativity, and love that have gone into this simple dish. Through this gravy, my brother speaks with his hands and his heart, saying: “I care about you and I am going to make sure you are not left out and that you have something fantastic to eat.”

For that and so much more, I am thankful.

…………

And now, if you’d like to create a Thanksgiving love story, bring home this delicious gravy.

Dan Barnett’s Chicago Style  Never-Enough-Mushroom Vegetarian Gravy

Ingredients

2 large onions (chopped)

2 pounds (or more) white button mushrooms sliced (can add some portabellas for enhanced flavor)

1 cup of white wine (of lesser quality)

Salt & pepper to taste

2 tablespoons of cornstarch

Olive oil

For 5 cups of water, start out with 2 vegetable boullion cubes. Add more if needed.

Directions

To create the gravy base:

In a four-quart pot, pour a thin layer of olive oil and turn the burner on medium.

Add the onions and sauté for10-15 minutes until they are caramelized (golden brown)

Add water until the pot is about half full.

Simmer slowly for 30 minutes.

Blend the onion water mixture using either an immersion blender or by transferring the mixture to a food processor.

Add the 2 pounds (or more) of sliced mushrooms white wine and fill the pot with water until it is 3/4 full. Simmer for 15-20 minutes.

In a small bowl,  put 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.  Pour in a small amount of the broth. Once it’s a smooth paste, pour in more liquid to make it a runny paste. Then pour the mixture slowly back into the gravy while stirring. This will thicken it. You may have to do this a couple of times to achieve the desired thickness.

Simmer for 30 minutes and season to taste with salt and pepper.

###

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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Laughing All the Way: Boosting Health and Happiness 

“When You Laugh, you change, 

and when you change the whole world changes.” 

          -Dr Madan Kataria, MD, Founder Laughter Yoga Movement

 

We were warmly welcomed into a parlor area, reminiscent of an elegantly aging aunt’s apartment. A piano waited patiently along one wall. There was a colorful bowl of fruit and a tempting array of pastries and fruit-infused waters. As we waited, we looked out into an outdoor garden and picnic area.  The 80th Street Residency, a memory care community in Manhattan, created a warm, home-like atmosphere for its residents. Ron and I had come here to offer a laughter yoga class, hoping to boost our participants’ health and happiness. We worked with their activities coordinator, Jackie LaBau.

Here’s what we’ve learned about laughter yoga: often people look, act, and feel differently after they’ve experienced a session. There is a magic about intentionally laughing with a group. The experience of breathing, clapping, engaging in playful imaginings, and of course, laughing, soon softens the spirits. People feel energetic and connected.  Everyone, including staff, residents, and us, leave feeling happier. That’s what happened  in New York,  just as it has every time Ron and I have led laughing sessions.  

Back home in Kansas City, we laughed with the lively people at Jeanne’s Place, CareHaven’s day program for people living with early stage dementia. We have laughed with these wonderful folks before, and now they start giggling when we walk in. 

We also visited Mandy Shoemaker and her team at Prairie Eider Care, our area’s only Eden Alternative homes, and we had fun admiring their outdoor barnyard collection of silky chickens, a potbellied pig, and sassy ducks. Then we settled into their welcoming living areas.  We sat in intergenerational circles with staff, family members, and residents, talking, singing, and laughing.

Dr. Kataria, the founder of Laughter Yoga, believes that inviting out our childlike energy and acting playfully is vital to living a balanced and healthy life. Plus, it’s tremendous fun. He says: “Laughter Yoga is an aerobic workout that helps uplift your mood within minutes by releasing endorphins from your brain cells. You often remain energized, relaxed, and in good spirits throughout the day. Laughter also makes our immune system stronger, increases oxygen intake, and reduces stress. Plus laughing with others builds a social bond and reduces feelings of isolation.”

In our groups, we created laughter milkshakes, with each person choosing their favorite flavor of ice cream. We looked at each other, waved, and laughed. We had a lot of dog lovers in our groups, so we imagined how a chihuahua would laugh. A member of the nursing team loved large dogs and she helped us to guffaw like a Great Dane. Most of our group loved baseball, so we sang, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” then substituted the words with “Ha Ha “ syllables, otherwise known as the Ha Ha Chorus. That chorus works for any familiar song and tickles your funny bone.

Ron and I learned Laughter Yoga from the amazing Robert Rivest, who is a master trainer and who studied with Dr. Kataria. But you don’t need to be a trained facilitator to bring more laughter into your life.

Quick Tips for Adding Laughter into the Day

•Look at the clock and laugh for one minute.

•When driving, laugh during red lights.

•When working out, pick a couple of exercises, such as squats and curls, and laugh while you’re doing them. (Want to get others laughing? Do this at the gym!)

•Use the “ha ha chorus” to bring giggles into your life. Take any song and substitute “ha ha ha’s” for the words. This works well in the shower, car, on walks and more.

Want to laugh more? 

Visit laughteryoga.org and robertrivest.com 

Contact Deborah Shouse and Ron Zoglin: 816-361-7878  Email myinfo@pobox.com Website: DemeniaJourney.org

If you are part of a memory care community in the KC area and you’d like to gift your residents with laughter, feel free to reach out to us at creativity@pobox.com 

Click to view informative and inspiring short videos on our YouTube channel

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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Musing Together: Looking at Art  Expands Skills, Increases Socialization, and Widens Horizons

The group pauses in front of a large contemporary sculpture, depicting a preacher standing before his congregation at a small country church.  They walk around the piece, noticing the pews, the organist, and the variety of parishioners, and chatting as they view. Then they settle into chairs and co-facilitator Esther Smith asks: “What is one word that comes to mind when you look at this piece of art.”

 

“Boring,’ says one woman.

“What makes it boring?” Esther asks.

“It brings me back to my childhood, when I was stuck in church for hours,” she answers. “I was so bored.”

A few others nod. Someone asks, “When was this made? Where is it from?” and the conversation about the art continues.

Every month at the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, Teaching Artist Esther Smith guides a group of care partners and people living with dementia on a 90-minute gallery exploration called Musings Together. 

“It’s a light-hearted, interactive experience,” Esther says. “We go at a slow pace, seeing only three to four works each time. We want people to have a comfortable, personalized experience with art.”

The open-ended conversation brings out people’s stories and ideas. Sitting in front of Giovanni Bellini’s Madona and Child, Esther asks, “What lines do you notice in this painting? Trace them in the air with your hand.”

After people trace their lines, she asks, “What line was most interesting to you?” That question might lead into a discussion of what makes this painting different. Then Esther might invite the group to pose like the picture. She might say, “How would that baby’s head feel in your hand?”

“These simple prompts launch us into deep conversations,” Esther says. She and her team are experimenting with expanding the sensory experience, including bringing out oranges when they’re gazing at a still life of fruit and letting each guest hold and examine the orange. Esther also invites people to occasionally sketch an aspect of a drawing that appeals to them, using a drawing pad on a clipboard. 

“ A number of our participants have never been regular museum-goers. Now they feel comfortable here and come more often,” Esther says. “Developing a new community of friends and an expanding interest in art enriches their lives.”    #

Want to look at art with someone who is living with dementia?

If you’re visiting a museum, focus on a gallery with 3-4 large and interesting pieces. Ask a docent for advice, if needed. If you’re at home, give yourself plenty to time to comfortably view a few works of art on-line or in books. 

  • Bring a folding chair, so you can sit.
  • Chose a time of day when your partner is energetic and the gallery is relatively quiet.
  • Have fun just noticing the aspects of the piece. You might invite comments on colors, textures, familiar figures, objects that seem odd to you, and other aspects. 
  • Ask open-ended questions, such as, “What does this piece make you think of?” “What do you like about this piece?” “How do you think that main guy feels?” 

When attention wanes, move onto something else, including a lovely coffee or tea break.   

Click to view informative and inspiring short videos on our YouTube channel

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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Quality Moments in the Land of Dementia: Laughing and Creativity in Jamaica 

Our hosts started the program with a beautiful hymn of gratitude, a perfect way to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of connecting and laughing in the land of dementia. We met in the Salvation Army Church and Community Centre in historic downtown Falmouth, Jamaica, with a group of caregivers and community advocates. During our time together, we shared stories, information, laughter exercises, and creative ideas for taking care of ourselves and staying engaged.

For many, this was an introduction to dementia. For others, who were in the midst of caregiving, this was a time of learning and sharing. 

Ron and I talked about the importance of accepting each other as we are, no matter what we are going through. We discussed the power of having a purpose and how vital it is for all of us to have meaningful relationships and interesting experiences. . 

”When communicating with people who are living with dementia, don’t argue,” Shirley Duncan reminded everyone. “Don’t criticize. Be there to support and appreciate.” 

“When we are kind to ourselves, then we are better able to be kind to others,” one of our attendees said.

We discussed Dr. Cameron Camp’s concept of cognitive ramps, offering people the assistance they need to remain engaged in the activities they love. Here’s one example from our session: Lorna’s mother was a professional cook, completely at home in the kitchen. As her dementia progressed, she could no longer remember the family’s favorite recipes. But she could sit in the kitchen and enjoy the energy of cooking. And when Lorna’s daughter said, “We are going to make your famous stew. Does it have an onion in it?”  the mother smiled and nodded. Ingredient by ingredient, they consulted her, and she smiled and nodded at the mention of the right ingredients. Even though she wasn’t physically creating the meal, she was an integral part of the process.

We talked about the power of music, sharing ideas from Dan Cohen’s Music and Memory program and introduced people to the personal playlist.  We had an impromptu Conductorcise session, using Maestro David Dworkin’s aerobic and ground-breaking program, pretending we were conducting a symphony orchestra. We used laughter syllables to make it even more fun and soon everyone was standing up and conducting and laughing.

We shared a story from Karen Stobbe, reminding us all to affirm and appreciate and to use the improv technique, “Yes and…” to ignite and invite conversation. 

Throughout our discussion, we wove in laughter exercises.

We enjoyed an imaginary laughter swim. We batted around laughter balloons and cooked up a laughter stew that included fish, pumpkin, garlic, carrots, Irish potatoes and okra. 

At the end, we breathed in our gratitudes, closed our eyes and sent our feelings of love, connection, and laughter into the world, hopefully to help and inspire others. 

Click here for a small taste of this lively workshop:

A special thanks for the dementia advocates and community volunteers who brought everything together, including Dundeen Ferguson, Shirley Duncan,  Sandra Latibeaudiere, Elise Thomas, and Lorna Colley. And thanks to everyone who attended.

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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An Old-Fashioned Holiday

This old-fashioned holiday story from Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey celebrates the spiritual aspects of living with dementia.

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.

 

“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.

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.

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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Eight Steps to Help People Living with Dementia Feel at Ease during Holiday Gatherings

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.

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

A Thanksgiving Love Story: Bringing Home the Gravy

Thanksgiving changed the year I went vegetarian. I did not mind giving up the tender, moist turkey or the savory oyster-specked stuffing. But giving up the flavorful flow of mushroom-laden gravy was quite another thing. I watched enviously as my family ladled the luscious liquids over their mashed potatoes, turkey and stuffing. As I nibbled dryly on my carrots, green beans and salad, my lower lip protruded. I felt left out and deprived.

My brother, Dan, ever alert to the pouting big sister, came up with a solution.

“Next year I will make special vegetarian gravy just for you,” Dan promised.

Years later, that special vegetarian gravy has become one of my favorite Thanksgiving rituals. I begin fantasizing about it the moment the autumn leaves turn crimson. I know that in mere weeks, my brother and his family will arrive and I will have my yearly boost of family and feasting, highlighted by gravy.

When my brother calls to tell me his travel plans, I write his arrival time and GRAVY on my calendar. The night he comes to town, we make the shopping list together, avidly discussing how many pounds of mushrooms we need for both the carnivore and vegetarian pots of gravy. I relish the early-Wednesday morning trip through the grocery store, where Dan and I and our children carefully select the foods we will be making the next day. We linger in the produce aisle, filling several sacks with gleaming white mushrooms and buying rustling yellow onions.

On Thanksgiving Day, Dan and I and other family members spend long, luxurious hours cooking. Dan mans the stove and I manage the slicing and chopping. Together we snap, peal, slice and dice the vegetables that will accessorize the turkey. I take special pleasure in wiping clean and slicing the mushrooms, then bringing my brother the brimming bowlful. When he has nodded his approval, I get out the old copper pot I bought in Germany in the early seventies. This year, Dan is improving his already amazing gravy. With his new immersion blender, he creates a rich base of caramelized onions, whose flavor surpasses that of the lowly vegetable cube. He adds in a little flour, then gentles the mushrooms into the onion broth. When the pot is bubbling with thickening nectar, he says, “Taste this and see what you think.”

I always think the same thing—“Wow, this is great.”

We are in a state of giddy and satisfied exhaustion by the time our guests arrive. We share grateful prayers with everyone and lay out the feast, including plenty of turkey-based gravy for the rest of the family.

Then comes the moment I have been waiting for: I sit down, my own personal pot of gravy poised by my plate. I cover the mashed potatoes, carrots, green beans, and salad with the aromatic concoction and I savor every bite. But more importantly, I savor the bounty, creativity, and love that have gone into this simple dish. Through this gravy, my brother speaks with his hands and his heart, saying: “I care about you and I am going to make sure you are not left out and that you have something fantastic to eat.”

For that and so much more, I am thankful.

…………

And now, if you’d like to create a Thanksgiving love story, bring home this delicious gravy.

Dan Barnett’s Chicago Style  Never-Enough-Mushroom Vegetarian Gravy

Ingredients

2 large onions (chopped)

2 pounds (or more) white button mushrooms sliced (can add some portabellas for enhanced flavor)

1 cup of white wine (of lesser quality)

Salt & pepper to taste

Olive oil

Directions

To create the gravy base:

In a four -quart pot, pour a thin layer of olive oil and turn the burner on medium.

Add the onions and sauté for10-15 minutes until they are caramelized (golden brown)

Add water until the pot is about half full.

Simmer slowly for 30 minutes.

Blend the onion water mixture using either an immersion blender or by transferring the mixture to a food processor.

Once you have the gravy base

Add the 2 pounds (or more) of sliced mushrooms, white wine and fill the pot with water until it is 3/4 full.

Simmer for 30 minutes and season to taste with salt and pepper.

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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Celebrating Great Connectors Throughout the Dementia Journey: Music, Nature, and Laughter

When care partners gather and trade stories and ideas, there’s usually magic afoot. We felt that magic when we met with a group of family and professional care partners to celebrate great connectors throughout the dementia journey. We presented engaging ideas using music, nature, laughter and more.

Lisa Vetter, Director of Healthcare Sales & Marketing,  Santa Marta Senior Living Community, invited us to speak at an event announcing the community’s new care partner support group. The group is led by Jennifer Walker, RN, BSN, Clinical Community Liaison, Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care. Jennifer also facilitates the KC Memory Cafe and she is compassionate, informed, and smart. Most importantly, she has a fantastic sense of humor.

Ron and I shared ways to stay connected through singing and music, looking at works of art together, bringing nature indoors, and laughing. And our audience shared their experiences as well.  

Here’s a story about nature that inspired us.

Marcie took her mom, who was living with dementia, on a fascinating monthly outing: they drove out into the country to look at the full moon. Her mother didn’t talk much anymore, but she loved seeing the night sky and gazing at the magnificent moon. One evening, as the moonlight spread over the car, Mom began singing, When the moon comes over the mountain. Marcie had never heard the song before and her eyes filled with tears at hearing her mom sing so strongly and clearly. 

Here’s a story about the power of familiar music. Karen’s mom was a devout Catholic, living with dementia. Though there were many things she didn’t remember, including her daughter’s name, when she attended Sunday mass, she melodically sang every word of every hymn. 

We loved sharing with this group of dedicated and compassionate care partners, who were all seeking ways to stay connected. 

Here’s an extra tip from Connecting in the Land of Dementia:  When you want to boost energy and lift spirits, add a splash of laughter into your life. Look at a clock and say, “We’re going to laugh for 30 seconds,” and start ha ha ha-ing. Or pretend you’re talking on the phone and hearing a hilarious joke. Or warble out the Ha Ha Chorus by singing the Happy Birthday song in “ha ha ha” syllables. 

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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Celebrating our Mothers 

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.

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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Movies and Memories: Laughter Triumphs Over Weather

It’s a Sunday morning in early April and we were excited about our Movies and Memories laughter program that afternoon at 2:00.

Then, the unthinkable happened. It started to snow, blanketing the daffodils and tulips with just enough flakes to make people want to cozy up at home. 

What did we do? Laugh, of course.

Laughter was the theme of our April program and we had excerpts from the inestimable Mr. Bean to anchor our program.

As Emily from the Kansas City Public Library, Plaza Branch,  made our popcorn and other library staff readied the technology, we accepted the fact that we might have only our intrepid volunteers in the audience. We all vowed to have a great time anyway.

Musician Richelle Basgall regaled us with songs and stories and our guests began to arrive.  Soon we had about 30 people who ignored the weather and were ready for fun. And fun we had. One of our volunteers brought us sumptuous cookies and small cakes. The aroma of fresh popcorn warmed us all and we laughed our way through a hilarious clip of Mr. Bean playing miniature golf. Then we passed out jokes, which we laughingly shared with each other. (What kind of sandwiches do astronauts eat: Launch meat! Why did the oil painting get sent to jail? It was framed!)

After watching Mr. Bean’s laundromat escapades, we had a laughter yoga session. We didn’t have to worry about traditional physical yoga postures—laughter yoga includes clapping, gestures, playfulness, and breathing. Everyone was a hearty laugher and we were all relaxed and smiling as we watched Mr. Bean’s horror as he tried to cope with raw oysters at a fancy restaurant.

Our ending surprise was a delicious way to take Mr. Bean home— gourmet jelly beans!!

Click here for a short video experience. 

Stay tuned for our next Movies and Memories event in August!

Want to have a movies and memories event right in your own home?

Here are a few tips:

If you’d like to make this an intergenerational experience, select a movie or clips you all might enjoy.

Choose a time of day when the person living with dementia will have good energy.

Get your favorite movie treats ready.

Create times to pause and chat about what you’ve seen. 

Print out simple jokes as a great way to spread the laughter.

If you wish, offer a surprise at the end, either something that reminds you to laugh or smile. And if you like sweets, our jelly beans were a huge hit! With all those flavors, you have a lot to talk about!

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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