I am fairly knowledgable about dementia. Sadly, I came by it through personal experience taking care of my husband for 7-plus years. It became my passion not only to better understand what he was experiencing but to create moments of joy for him and others impacted by cognitive and memory impairments.
For 3 years, I have lead weekly Kindermusik Bridges classes at the Elizabeth and Tab Williams Adult Day Center for those in various stages of dementia, where the participants (usually 20 – 30 sitting around the room in a large circle) help me lead and participate in activities with babies and toddlers and their caregiver. Even after 150 classes, I continue to be amazed by the energy and compassion of these seniors. Every week delivers a new goosebump moment for me – and I’m pretty certain for the seniors, the children, and their parent/grandparent/nanny, too.
Two weeks ago, I suspended attendance by the children and their families due to Covid19, which was just beginning to ramp up. Taking all the necessary precautions, I went and told the Day Center participants the children weren’t coming and that we were having a teacher training day. When transpired in the next 30 minutes absolutely blew my socks off.
I started out by asking them why they thought we always started with the children handing each senior a duck mitt or a small stuffed animal. One participant quickly raised her hand and said, “so we can smile.” True enough – I always tell them to look at the child and smile when handed an instrument, prop or stuffie. “Absolutely,” I responded, “and there’s another reason.” A gentleman raised his hand and responded, “for relationship.” My jaw dropped. I was speechless. What unexpected insight!
We moved on to the Hello song. “Why do you think we sing the same hello song week after week, year after year?” I got a variety of answers, including “so the children can learn it.” I asked them if they knew it and they mostly all nodded. So, we sang it, or rather, they sang it – without the recording, without me. They were right – they knew it and at least 60% sang along. From this point forward, I will never use the recording for hello and goodbye.
Conversations continued – about inhibitory control (yes, I used that term and one participant requested I repeat it so she could learn it) and we practiced a start and stop movement activity. They love using the American Sign Language sign for “stop.” We talked about object permanence and why peek-a-boo is such an important game for these young ones. Of course, the scarves came out so we could practice our best and most gentle “boo’s!” We talked about the importance of animal sounds, nursery rhymes, lullabies. We brainstormed what instruments would be too difficult for young children and which ones are just right. We sang goodbye and ended our teacher training session. I was exhilarated…and so were they.
I have spent most of my career as a trainer and this experience was not a watered-down version. It was a deep, insightful conversation with folks who may have some limitations, but were able to demonstrate a deep knowing that had never occurred to me to tap into before. Have I short-changed these seniors by thinking they couldn’t understand the why’s behind the what’s of a Bridges class? I look forward to the day the children and their caregivers return – I certainly can’t replicate that magic – but I will always add periodic training sessions. They are capable and probably hunger for conversations that dig deep into their experiences and knowledge that are not impaired by their dementia. This was a training session – and the student was me.