During the past few years, as we have worked in retirement communities, adult day centers and memory clinics, we have discovered some simple but powerful tools for engaging people who are living with Alzheimer’s. One of the first ideas that we talk to people about when we are consulting with families or training staff is this one very simple thing: put something meaningful in a person’s hands. This meaningful object can be something that the person loved, or it could be something from nature, or it could be a small sculpture or a lovely photograph.
We all have a bond with nature, even those of us who live in cities. There is a resonance when we hold something made of wood; the wood takes on the warmth of our hands. Even something as common as a smooth stone can take on special meaning when placed in the hands of a person living with Alzheimer’s. Leaves, flowers, a cup of snow can bring forth a torrent of memories for elders who are now living in locked dementia units, or who seldom venture out of doors.
Once we understand the importance of giving people something to hold, the ideas are only limited by our own imagination. Perhaps the person you care for loved baseball. Obviously, a baseball or baseball mitt, a baseball pennant or cap of their favorite team can be an excellent way to bring back baseball memories and spark conversation. We created a very interesting game by dividing miniature baseball pennants into the teams that belonged to the National League and those teams belonging to the American League. For a baseball fan, this game provides lots of memories and lots of fun. [Small pennants can be found and purchased on the Internet.]
Another exercise we created was to fill a tackle box full of matching fishing lures (hooks removed) and bobbers. We also placed matching photographs of fish and pictures of people fishing in the tackle box. We have spent many hours with this tackle box, talking to both men and women about their memories of fishing and the big ones who got away.
Another simple but meaningful exercise is to give people swatches of material to hold in each hand. One swatch might be corduroy, another could be satin. These materials feel very different from each other and may bring up memories of wearing or making clothes. We have created lively discussions by bringing in art works, both paintings and small sculptures. For those people who have trouble with their vision, sculptures or textured material, real fruits and vegetables are all objects that they could identify from touch or smell.
We use this simple act of placing a meaningful object in someone’s hand as a way to begin to build a bridge to the person living with Alzheimer’s. It is very difficult to begin a conversation or spark memories from thin air. Giving people things to hold that are from nature, or from their own life experience, is a powerful way to help connect elders to the larger world again.
Charlie’s mother had been a talented violinist. As she passed through the final stage of Alzheimer’s, her family could not find anyway to connect with her. She rarely opened her eyes to look at them, and never had any reaction to seeing them, no smile, and no look of recognition. Charlie was near tears when he contacted us, and asked for our help. The family knew, of course, that their mother was near death, but they wanted to be able to feel that they were with her in these last days.
Knowing his mother’s history, we encouraged Charlie to place his mother’s violin in her hands, even as she lay with her eyes closed. We also asked him to play some CD’s of his mother’s favorite music. Charlie told us that when he placed his mother’s violin in her hands, her eyes flew open and she began to stroke the beloved instrument. For the first time in months, Charlie’s mother looked at him and smiled. The last few days of Charlie’s mother’s life were spent listening to her favorite music, her violin in her arms, her family with her to the end.
*[Authors’ note: Please make sure that the objects you use are safe: too large to be swallowed, nothing sharp edged or pointed, and nothing toxic!]