The Unbroken Circle

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky?

For those of us who are of a certain age and grew up in rural communities, the lyrics to Ada R. Habershon’s old hymn are very familiar. The song speaks of Heaven but it is really about family, about the ties that bind (yet another old hymn). These old-fashioned songs may not be as popular as they once were, but the message found within the hymn – the strength of family, the strength of the circle – are as profound today as ever they were.

Dr. Maria Montessori, the founder of the Montessori Method and the first woman to become a physician in Italy, also held a Ph.D. in anthropology. In her studies of ancient and modern cultures, Dr. Montessori came to understand the importance of the circle in human interaction. Every culture had some form of circle meetings, whether the circles held dances, drum circles or councils. When we sit in a circle, there is no hierarchy, no head of the table. When we sit in a circle we must look one another in the eyes and face all of those present. A circle brings people together in a democratic, social and bonding setting.

We use the circle in many different places and in many different ways. Some of our most moving experiences have come in our “elder reading circle” work. We listen to stories that people living with dementia tell us. Some of these stories are just snapshots of a moment in time, others are more complex, but all of them, without fail, are about relationships. These stories tell us about people’s parents, siblings, friends, spouses, lovers, teachers and mentors. They are often told with dramatic flair and always with heartfelt emotion.

We translate these spoken stories into a written version, produced in large print and placed in binders. Several copies are made of each story so that people can take turns reading a page aloud in the elder reading circle. These stories gathered from older people and shared with other elders have such resonance as they travel from long-term care center to adult day center to senior center. Not only do these true stories touch the people who are reading them, they have also become an important part of our lives. We have learned so many valuable life lessons listening to the stories that chronicle the strength, love, joy and pure grit of many of our elders.

Another wonderful experience in this circle work is the drum circle. We give each participant a frame drum with a beater. Even though people often say they don’t have any rhythm or have never played a musical instrument, we reassure them that if they have a heartbeat, they have rhythm. We start with very simple rhythm patterns – ma-ma, da-da – and build from there. Before long, all the drummers in the circle are playing in unison, following a beat, starting and stopping together, playing louder and softer together. The drum circle is a wonderful bonding, joyous experience for everyone. It is also a great release of tension for people with dementia and their care givers. If someone is no longer able to express themselves through language, the Drum Circle provides a great opportunity to communicate with other people once again. 

Circle work can consist of simply sitting together in a circle chatting and following the conversation wherever it leads. You can have singing circles or joke telling circles or scripture circles. These exercises are only limited by the imagination of the people creating them. Whatever exercise, activity or project you are planning for people living with dementia, we encourage you to do this work with everyone sitting in a circle to promote engagement and bonding. Over the years, as we work with people who live with dementia and their caregivers, we have found that circle work creates and strengthens the bonds between us that will not be broken.