Saturday, July 25, 2009

Living Words: Therapeutic Writing for Early-Stage Dementia

Lauren Holland, a student at Wofford College, came across my Writing as Therapy blog post and sent an email two weeks ago about the Living Words program. I answered her email and casually goggled Wofford College to see where it was located. My Goggle search informed me that Wofford is in Spartanburg, SC.

That information made me smile because that’s where my good friend, Ralph Winn, lives. I met Ralph at the 2000 Alzheimer’s Association Public Policy Forum in Washington, DC. Ralph and I, both board members at our local associations, were attending the forum with our respective executive directors. We hit it off at the executive directors’ reception. “Oh, you are a board member, too,” Ralph said with a charming southern accent that immediately made me realize he was indeed a southern gentleman. “I guess we are crashing this party,” he said. Ralph figured he might be distinguished as the oldest participant at the meeting, but he was determined to be an advocate for his lovely wife who had Alzheimer’s.

The next morning I was free to explore Washington, DC, while my executive director was in a meeting. I called the front desk and asked to be connected to Ralph’s room to ask him to go with me. He wasn’t in his room, so I decided he might be people watching. Sure enough, I found him sitting in a big comfy chair in the lobby. That day we toured the Smithsonian and our friendship was born.

Today, I received a second email from Lauren in Spartanburg, SC. This time Lauren mentioned their website and I decided to visit the site to learn more about the Living Words program. This therapeutic writing workshop is for individuals with dementia and a caregiver or friend who accompanies them. I read blog entries, sample stories, program descriptions, and followed a link to a newspaper article about a father and daughter reconnecting because of the program.

I know from personal experience that writing is cathartic and have always recommended it as a way to cope with stress and grief. I knew from the stories submitted by Tracy Mobley and Charles Schneider to Alzheimer’s Anthology of Unconditional Love that writing helped my friends with dementia. Tracy tells me that writing helps her express herself better than speaking. Writing gives her more time to think about what she wants to say. Writing is not easy for her, but it is well worth the effort.

The Living Words website chronicles the writing program in sufficient detail to allow the implementation of this program in other communities. The website serves as a template for support groups, facilities, or other organizations to help families touched by Alzheimer’s benefit from writing.

Participants are not pushed into writing, but gently nudged into exploring their memories or stretching themselves to creatively answer writing prompts. Workshops are conducted with humor and encourage camaraderie between caregivers and their loved ones with dementia as they share their ideas, thoughts, and reminiscences with each other. Living Words is a concept with the potential to use the therapeutic benefits of writing to improve quality of life for families living with Alzheimer’s.

Visit Living Words website at and see if you can be inspired to offer a similar program in your community.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Life is Good

I found myself in a funk—tired, rundown, and overdrawn on vitality. To regain my normal optimistic outlook on life, I decided to take a mini-vacation with nary a single plan to clutter up my do-nothingness. Usually the idea of taking three days off work in the middle of a Missouri July means chilling out under the air conditioner.

Wednesday, I went to Kansas City and wore one of my “Life is Good” T-shirts for luck. I ventured into Dick’s Sporting Goods to see what kind of mid-summer bargains they might have. I practically glowed with optimism when I found my favorite T-shirts on sale and snapped up four “Life is Good” long-sleeved T-shirts. Well, I figured I couldn’t wear them until fall, but knew I’d get my money’s worth then.

When I was in Boston last year I visited the original Life is Good store. That’s where I heard the Bert and John Jacobs’ story. These two guys made their start by selling T-shirts out of the back of a van. With a creative idea and a vanload of optimism, their achievements must have exceeded their wildest optimistic dreams.

Sometimes in my life, it’s been hard for me to remain optimistic, but it is in my nature to look for the good in life. That is part of what helped me make it through the ten years of Jim’s dementia. I sought out the good times, the quiet times, the loving times. I found that by cherishing those small moments of joy, I could make it through the bad times.

As we travel the river of life, we hit snags, whirlpools try to suck us downward, and sometimes we wind up high and dry on a sand bar. When we navigate through dangerous rapids we find ourselves in mortal danger as we cling to life.

We can recognize the dangers of a river, but often don’t recognize the risk of stress. Warning signs are everywhere—high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, depression. We need to find a calm, quiet place and mentally regroup. We all need respite from the pressures of life. If we don’t take time for ourselves, our inner optimism will die from lack of use.

My mini-vacation became respite from work and hot weather. A friend and I had a backyard barbeque Thursday evening and as we relaxed in lawn chairs a cool breeze sprung up. Who would have thought we would have 70 degree weather on a mid-July evening?

Today, I awoke to 60 degree weather and guess what? I broke out one of my Life is Good shirts. I removed the tag and realized that my shirt is named “Acoustic Jake.”

I still find joy in life’s small treasures. I find comfort in reading inspirational books like Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now and Become a Better You. This morning, my uplifting reading came from a tag off my Life is Good shirt. These words surround the logo on the tag: “Do what you like. Like what you do. Optimism can take you anywhere.”

Life is good.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thinking with My Heart

This week I received email newsletters from two trusted sources, Alzheimer’s Weekly and the Alzheimer’s Association, about a Swedish/Finnish study. The crux of the study was a marriage, so to speak, between dementia and committed relationships. I perked up when the researchers concluded that widows (like me!) were three times as likely to develop dementia as married women. I read new studies the same way I read a horoscope—I pick out the parts I like and bah-humbug the rest.

The researchers say that social involvement will help offset the dementia risk of living alone. That’s good news for me since I am by nature a social being. I have been an Alzheimer’s Association volunteer and advocate for the past fourteen years. I’m an officer in a local business women’s group. Talk about an active club! We move from one project to the next, and have monthly meetings, weekly friendship luncheons, and several great conferences each year. Last, but certainly not least, I’m president of the Columbia Chapter of the Missouri Writers’ Guild. Oh, and did I mention I work full-time as office manager at a rural electric cooperative? So, I think I have “social” covered.

When the Alzheimer’s Association first unveiled their Maintain Your Brain program, I had mixed emotions. My friend, Diane and I were delegates at an assembly meeting in Chicago when we first heard about the program. Diane’s husband had recently died from early onset dementia, and she was concerned that people would begin to think that dementia was brought on by unhealthy habits. I had to agree with her.

Yes, we all want to do things to keep our minds healthy, but what about people like Jim? He read, played the guitar, knew the lyrics to hundreds of songs, and he was only forty-nine years old. He certainly was not at risk for dementia.

After I learned more about the program, I liked the common sense idea behind the science. Maintain Your Brain can be condensed into a few basic categories: stay mentally, socially, and physically active, and while you’re at it, eat brain healthy food. How to develop these simple, but effective, brain healthy habits can be found on the Alzheimer’s Association website at

Heart and brain health are connected in many ways. So think with your heart, but before you sign up for consider other factors that can reduce your risk of dementia. A good rule to keep in mind is that if it’s good for your heart it’s good for your brain.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Music Therapy Stimulates Memories

Music stimulates our memories and unveils feelings we thought we had forgotten. Have you ever noticed how a song can bring back a flood of emotions? A familiar melody can take us back in time, and although our physical appearance might shriek middle-age, our emotional age is the era of the song.

If you don’t think music can transform you internally, pay attention to the songs that give you happy feet. Even if your body isn’t up to the dance moves of your youth, your heart hears the music and your feet want to dance.

Throughout the years of our marriage, Jim played his guitar nearly every morning. He called it his therapy. At work I often listen to KDRO radio, a local station that plays country music and almost every song makes me think of Jim. One of the saddest things about dementia was when Jim began to have trouble playing his guitar. One day he asked me to tune his guitar. Jim, the man with perfect pitch, wanted tone-deaf me to attempt something I had never done in my life. I knew his request was beyond my abilities, but I called his brother and he took care of it.

Music has been a family tradition in my mom’s family. I grew up thinking that all normal families played guitars and sang. On Saturday nights my mom and her brothers, neighbors, and friends sat on wooden kitchen chairs and played music for hours. On those Saturdays at Grandma and Grandpa Whittle’s house, my Aunt Venetia always sang my grandma’s favorite gospel songs.

My mom, Aunt Labetta, Jimmy (my brother), cousin Reta, and Gene Branch play music at the nursing home one Saturday a month. Recently, I dropped by Good Shepherd Nursing Home in Versailles to listen to the music. I wound my way through the halls to the dining room where they were set up on the stage. Several residents tapped their toes and sang along with the songs they knew. At the front of the room, my Aunt Venetia sat dozing in her wheelchair while my cousin Jan attended to her.

My mom and Aunt Labetta, as always, dedicated a special song to their sister-in-law. Aunt Venetia is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, yet she perks up when she hears the music she’s loved her entire life.

When Jim was in the nursing home, his favorite channel was GAC. His eyes were glued to the set when his favorite entertainers performed. His foot would tap in time to the music that he once effortlessly played.

With the special bond music has to our memories, it is no wonder that eyes sparkle at certain songs. Sometimes the sparkle is caused by unshed tears, but often it’s just memories dancing in our brains that bring life to our eyes.