We all want to stay close to those we cherish, for as long as possible. How do we maintain those treasured connections? That was a question I constantly asked myself during my mom’s journey through dementia.
During my time with mom, I learned the power of creativity and imagination. I learned that even when people can no longer drive to the grocery store or remember their daughter’s name, their lives can still be rich. In fact, because their reactions are sometimes less filtered and more honest, their creative powers are often heightened.
My new book, Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together, helps us experience more of those moments we all cherish. Research shows that the part of the brain that engages in creativity and imagination outlasts the rational part of the brain, so there are limitless opportunities for engagement.
Over the last three years, I’ve reached out to dozens of dementia experts. These innovators use expressive arts, such as singing, movement, painting, and more, as catalysts for creative and emotional connections. Such projects enrich both people’s lives. The benefits include increased energy, reduced anxiety, and chances to express yourself in novel and meaningful ways.
Here are some interesting ideas and true stories, adapted from Connecting in the Land of Dementia:
Enjoy the Beach, Without Going to the Shore
“Without spending a lot of money, you can fashion an amazing atmosphere in a small space,” says Claire Craig, PhD, co-author of Creativity and Communication in Persons with Dementia: A Practical Guide. “There are no limits: I’ve seen indoor jungles, beaches, formal plantings, and forests.”
“People with dementia often feel a sense of calm and connectedness when they’re outdoors,” says Claire. “When people are not grounded in their natural surroundings, they can feel disoriented and confused.”
Claire sees the outdoors as a place to unite art and nature. She suggests weaving nature-related experiences into your day. Include walking, picnicking, gardening, and creating outdoor art. For indoor or outdoor connections, try photography along with bird, animal, and people watching.
Use Art to Ignite Conversation
Teri Miller, with the Alzheimer’s Association Houston & Southeast Texas Chapter, has witnessed the power of creativity and the arts. As the Early Stage Program Manager, Teri collaborates with a variety of Houston’s arts and civic organizations.
“Going to cultural activities offers people a sense of normalcy and gives them a date to put on their calendars,” she says. “When they go with friends or care partners, they have an experience to discuss. Even people who say, ‘Oh, I don’t care for museums, usually have a great time.”
Many art galleries and museums offer special tours and events for people living with dementia. You can also fashion a viewing experience at home. Choose works that portray emotion, tell a story, or align with your partner’s background or interests. Ask open-ended questions that invite conversation, such as, “What does this make you think of?” and “What do you notice in this picture?”
Stir up a Recipe for Reminiscence
As her husband Charlie moved deeper into dementia, Elizabeth Miller bought a cookbook from his teenage years in the 1960s. They read through the recipes and highlighted the ones he remembered his mom making. Then, with Charlie as her sous chef, Elizabeth made dishes such as chicken cacciatore, tuna casserole, and spaghetti and meatballs. They invited Charlie’s childhood friends over for a meal and talked about old times while they chowed down on Johnny Marzetti Casserole, a fancy term for elbow macaroni and ground beef.
Tune into Timeless Tunes
Barrick Wilson of Wichita, Kansas, used music to connect with his beloved wife, Kristi, during her dementia journey. He often took Kristi for a ride and they’d listen to favorite songs as they tooled along.
“Our staff counsels care communities and families on when and how to use the music,” says Linsey Norton, who served as the Alzheimer’s Association’s Program Director. “We also help care partners notice behavioral cues so they can reach for the headphones instead of the anti-anxiety medication.”
Working with the Association, Barrick set out to develop a playlist that keyed in on Kristi’s emotional memories.
“I purchased a boxed set of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musicals, records her parents had listened to at home when Kristi was growing up,” Barrick says.
He also selected songs Kristi might have listened to from ages 15-25, as well as other tunes that could trigger a positive emotional connection. Volunteers loaded his selections onto an iPod. Music helped Kristi when she needed to transition to a care home. The staff offered her favorite songs several times a day.
Receive Your Own Benefits
Whether you’re a friend, family member, or professional care partner, these easy and adaptable projects can foster stronger relationships, renew hope, and ignite a sense of purpose for both of you. As a bonus, these exercises are also a brain boost. Increasingly, studies show that painting, drawing, and other arts and crafts reduce the risk of cognitive impairment. Additional activities such as music, movement, gardening, and social interactions strengthen the body, brain, and spirit. And most important, they keep you connected to those you care about.