How do we keep our sense of connection and creativity through the caregiving journey? That was a question I often asked myself. I wanted to share this story of an extraordinary couple– artist, dementia advocate, and social worker Grace Townley-Lott and her husband, puppeteer, actor, and playwright, Spencer Townley-Lott. Both use art as a creativity catalyst in their work and throughout their lives.
Their elders inspired them. Grace and Spencer were teenagers when her grandmother and his great-grandmotherwere going through a dementia journey. The experience was difficult and impactful.
Grace became a social worker, specializing in older adults and learning how to communicate with people who were living with dementia, often through art.
“It’s incredible how the arts open people up,” Grace says. “Someone who hasn’t painted in 20 years picks up a brush and creates something beautiful. Someone who hasn’t spoken in ages delivers a zinger of a one-liner. Every day, I see how creative people are and the connections that are still possible.”
As Grace unfurled her work experiences, Spencer gained a new understanding of his great-grandmother’s last years. He used those insights to create a critically acclaimed play, Blossom. This play, which utilizes puppets, was funded by a Jim Henson Foundation Grant. It focuses on James Blossom, a retired painter who is living with dementia and his family’s changing relationships.
Caregivers often wonder: “How do we keep creativity alive?” Grace and Spencer were kind enough to share some ideas.
Engaging in New Endeavors: Grace
Try to be in the moment, despite your list of tasks. Respond to and validate emotions. Be willing to go with the flow so you can allow creative sparks.
Pay attention to facial expressions as you invite your loved one to engage. If you start dancing, do their eyes light up and do they laugh? If you offer watercolors and cue your partner to touch the brush to wet paper, does he respond with joy when the color blooms on the page? If you’re having a hard time getting your partner to take a shower, croon a song and waltz with him into the shower. If it doesn’t work, that’s okay, too! But if it does work, it’s a lovely and practical way to connect, create, and take care of physical needs as well.
Sometimes it takes reframing the situation to view the possibilities. An outside person or idea can often expand your thinking.
Creativity Tips for the Care Partner: Spencer
Sometimes, physical actions can help release tension to allow for more creative thinking. Deep breaths and stretching can help you loosen up at first. In the theater world, we start every rehearsal with a physical game or action to help us get focused and leave our stress at the door. Try wiggling and shaking your feet and hands, giving yourself a brief facial massage, stretching as tall as you can, and twisting gently left and right. You’re getting the blood flowing, leaving the worried part of you in the hallway, and getting ready to create.
Allow room for surprises. Try to set the tone by modeling joy and openness. Be willing to try again.
Connecting through Art: Grace
I love viewing art with people who have dementia. Art is so subjective, so there’s no wrong answer to the question, “What do you see?” You can take that first question and lead it along into a fascinating conversation, one question at a time, building a fulfilling conversation with an individual or a group.
In these art viewings, a discussion about a painting can tap into emotions that would otherwise be left undiscussed, or it could lead into a beautiful conversation about the person’s childhood, for example. You never know where the conversation will lead! This creates a failure-free situation where a person with dementia can excel and their answers are valued.
Connecting through Puppets: Spencer
Puppets offer a level of separation for the care partner. For people living with dementia, a puppet’s cues may be simpler to decode, dramatically expressing joy or sorrow. The puppet can place a hand on a shoulder and offer many opportunities for sensory engagement.
Puppets can also encourage intergenerational play, creating connections between family members who may be unsure who to communicate with their loved one with dementia.
Keeping Your Creative Flow: Spencer and Grace
“Creativity is inherent in all of us,” Spencer says. “It’s a muscle you can strengthen. Be patient with yourself. The first day, you can only do one push-up. The second day, you can accomplish two or three. That’s what creativity and artistry feels like. Start small. You are laying the foundation. And it gets easier.”
“Be present and be ready for anything,” Grace says. “By asking your loved ones for advice, truly listening to them, and just being with them, you can form beautiful interactions throughout life.”
To learn more about Spencer, visit
To learn more about Grace, visit
Grace is the Director of Truly Inspired Outreach and Education for True Care Home Health.
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.