By: Benjamin Surmi, MSG, Social Gerontologist
Director of Culture and Education, Koelsch Communities
“Dad’s so bored!”
“My husband follows me all around the house.”
“Mom can’t sit down but paces all the time.”
“My grandma stays in her room.”
Every family I speak with has a different concern about the person they love. Yet, almost every family is hopeful that there is something specific they can do to help.
Hundreds of books and blogs and classes lay out creative techniques and ideas.
But, let’s distill all the information into three guiding principles.
1. Try Something
Lisa Klich, MA, art therapist and special needs specialist, teaches Koelsch memory care communities’ Living Well program– a skill-based approach to engaging people living with dementia.
With years of experience and study, you might expect Lisa to share several theoretical constructs. Instead, Lisa says, “The key is effort. You try something — anything. You never know what will work or what won’t. Try something at least three times on different days before giving up on it. And, then, try something else! But, whatever you do, do something.”
Pauline moved at full-speed — even with her bandaged leg. No one could stop her. The Living Well team took a risk and gave her tracing paper and a profile photo of Cary Grant. When Pauline’s daughter visited, tears streamed down her face as she saw her mom sit for an hour — focused on tracing and finally resting.
2. Find a Purpose
Over the decades, much work in this field has focused on engaging someone living with dementia. Whether shredding paper or sorting silverware, the activity itself intended to keep someone busy. However, it is now widely accepted that purpose is central. “Why are we doing this? What’s the point?”
Even something as simple as tearing up a newspaper can have a purpose. We may be shredding it for beds for rescued pets to be delivered to the Humane Society.
When Lynda moved into our community, her family shared how unhappy and isolated she had been at home. The Living Well team invited her to join them in classes. Lynda began to want more for her new community. She was concerned about new residents moving in and how to help them adjust to their new home. So, with our team’s help, she created and chaired the Welcoming Committee. Every new resident receives a personal visit from Lynda and a special door sign. She’s a whole new person now, loving every chance she gets to be around people.
When a person’s dementia progresses, those around them often start to take on many of their responsibilities and decision-making. Many times, these seem to be the safest things to do. Yet, over time, the person begins to feel “less-than” those around them. Withdrawal or anger is natural.
Look for ways to empower the person living with dementia. How can we involve them in decision-making? What role can we give them in our family gathering? How can they make a meaningful contribution as a peer or in their familial role?
Harry lost everything — his health, his wife, his home. His symptoms of dementia worsened significantly. He often refused to leave his room, even dining by himself.
The Living Well team learned he had been an athletic director and sports coach. They had been thinking about starting a bean bag baseball team and encouraged him to help them start the team and coach it.
They had no idea how much this would change Harry’s life.
Tryouts began among the rest of the residents. Coach Harry was front and center giving advice and positive encouragement at each practice. He helped the Friendship Club pick out the team’s new name. He supported the Crafting Club in choosing the colors and logos for the shirts. He helped assign each team member to their position on the team.
The immediate impact was evident as Harry had a keen desire to engage. Gone were the days of self-isolation in front of the TV. He is the first person to classes and always checking the schedule for upcoming programs.
At the team debut, Coach Harry shared positive words as the team lined up to be introduced one at a time. After everyone had been announced, his team spontaneously started shouting, “Speech! Speech! Speech!” They wanted their coach.
Harry stepped forward and introduced each person’s position on the team and expressed how happy he was to be on a team with amazing ladies and gentlemen.
There was not a dry eye among the team members as we saw how empowering a person can transform their life.
So, next time you are taking classes or reading books and get overwhelmed by the lists and principles and techniques, take a moment to remember three of the most important things we can do.
Thank you to Koelsch Communities for being a Presenting Sponsor for the Discovery Alzheimer’s Regional Conference for healthcare professionals on April 23, 2021. Learn more about the conference here.