The NYT’s story of the Support Sunny Group (SSG) is a hopeful tale of a group of friends deciding not to let their own fears or the routine of friendship stop them from being there for each other.  Too often I hear people say “it’s just to hard to be around him.”  “It’s so hard to see her this way – I just can’t go.”  And that is how (so simply, so gradually, so quietly) people with dementia lose their most valuable remaining thing – their circle of friends.  Friendship changes with dementia for sure.  But it can continue to yield gifts to both people.  Susan and John McFadden’s book Aging Together explores the beauty of friendship and community in dementia in more detail.  

This is a “welcome back” post – I’ve been micro-blogging in other places (like FB), but a recent article in the NYT’s prompts me to return to long format.

Today’s article in the NYTs by Gina Kolata points out what the folks working in advancing dementia care have been saying all along.  We are at a point where the massive efforts for early detection have resulted in a moment when doctors can diagnose but prescribe nothing.  And by prescribe, I don’t mean pills.

In the last 6 months alone I’ve been at two meetings to address this issue – both meetings rang with enormous urgency.  In June a huge group of leaders in dementia care and research gathered in DC to create a white paper on “non-pharmacological treatments” for dementia.  They have since eschewed that name for “life-enhancing” practices.  It was a who’s who in dementia care – over 40 people squished around the tables at Leading Age (which generously hosted us).  And the white paper has been a marvel of sausage-making.  But I’m hopeful that bringing all those voices together might lend strength to the ideas that it is unethical to advance detection without advancing care.  Especially when there are so many care practices that are wrapped in promising research.

In September my friend and colleague Kate de Medeiros and I presented a paper at a special symposium organized by the National Academy of Science to address the state of research in Arts, Health, and Aging.  You can watch the video of those proceedings here.   Kate and I were stunned by the research and practice mismatches – that research that showed pharmacological treatments with enormous potential side effects, high costs, and no impact on quality of life were being implemented far more widely than life-enhancing treatments that have no side effects, low cost and positive impact on quality of life because of a gap in research.

The “gap” it seems to us is conceptual (and of course financial).  The expectation of reaching a large group of people all with the same level of dementia, in living situations that are the same, who don’t know if they are being given a placebo or the experiment treatment, by people who have been trained exactly the same (and not by one charismatic trainer) is not, I believe, possible. Does this mean we can NEVER prescribe these life-enhancing treatments?  Or does it mean we must find other methods of research that are appropriate for these enormously complex settings?

And really, who will profit from the prescription of “meaningful engagement through the arts?”

My hope comes from the fact that these discussions are happening and that a new call from the NIH is interested in figuring out this issue.  My despair comes from the fact that the conversations are happening over and over…without seeming to move forward.

My mom called me the other night with a story (that I hear a lot unfortunately) about a friend who has dementia.  It seems she was in a “nice” place, but is now reported to be getting “aggressive” and they are demanding that she be drugged or they won’t be able to keep her there.  Perhaps I’ve been in the “bubble” lately, only hearing the talk of colleagues who KNOW that “behaviors” are communication – telling caregivers that something in the care context isn’t right.  They have an unmet need.  So these moments when you see these drugs used as an excuse NOT to change the care, not to inconvenience the caregivers, is a bit of a shock.

The advances made on alerting people to the side effects of psychotropic drugs (side effects like death…) hit a wall recently when a New England Journal of Medicine published an article about the “risk of relapse” in people with dementia who are taken off Risperdone.   The “challenging” behaviors come back.  They make NO mention at all of the possibility that the toxic environment of care might still be present as well.  That their needs – perhaps for pain medication, perhaps for basic human connection – might still be unmet.

I continue to work on ways to bring Life Enhancing treatments to people with dementia.  These same treatments also enhance the lives of the people who provide and participate in them – because they help to forge a sense of purpose and meaningful relationships in a very challenging physical and emotional time.  We are working to wrap research around these practices – research that will hold up.  But I know deep-down that with the competition for dollars in the field, these practices will never be “prescribed” unless we create consumer desire for them beyond the data.





On Memorial Day, I’ll make my way to Pittsburgh to give the Jay L. Foster Community Lecture on Alzheimer’s hosted by the U of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health

The talk of my title is Forget Memory – Try Imagination.  Today I was putting together the powerpoint and included some of the groups I just met/learned about over at the Creating a New Old conference in Ireland. 

One of those groups is Spare Tyre, based in London.  They have a pretty remarkable program called “Once Upon A Time” which uses mythic storylines in a rich sensory (touch, light, sound, texture etc), process of engaging with people in mid-to late stages of Alzheimer’s.  The slide show on their website really captures the power of this work. 

Can’t wait to share it, along with so many other great projects out there.  Of course I get to share a bit of the Penelope Project and some early ideas on the new project, Shipwrecked! 


A thoughtful piece on the power of inviting people with dementia into the world of the imagination was featured this morning on NPR’s Morning Edition.  Thanks to Joanne Silberner for a piece well done.  One correction – the interactive website for TimeSlips can be used without training…but we do encourage people to get training if they are going to use it with groups of people. 

And we also sorta prefer not to refer to people at patients…

Thanks to Nora in Seattle for being so open and willing to being interviewed! 


If you think about it, what would you most need if you began to have memory lapses and the world around you began to feel unfamiliar?  Unable to place faces.  Unable to recognize landscapes. Objects.

Familiar things.  Familiar pathways.  Familiar sounds.  Familiar objects.  Reassurance and comforting when the lapses occur.  And opportunities for symbolic self expression when cognition blocks or interrupts rational language.

Two recent articles in the NYT’s affirm this approach, which is, at last, starting to make sense to the general public and care providers.  Cathy Greenblat’s new book of photographs and an article about a care facility just outside Amsterdam show us how engagement, expression, and the built environment are, as John Zeisel says/writes, part of the treatment plan.



Following Aynsley

I had the good fortune to meet a great group of folks up at University of Toronto when I was there in March.  One of those was Aynsley Moorhouse, trained as an actor and with a MA in Theatre from UT. She’s currently an artist in residence at Toronto’s own Baycrest, facilitating a theatre group among the residents.  You can read along as the project evolves on her blog.  And she’s off!


I had the distinct privilege of spending 4 days with over a dozen documentary filmmakers this past week.  11 projects were selected out of 130 (yes, 130!) to be part of REEL Aging, a retreat hosted by Working Films that aims to help films develop solid outreach and engagement plans.  In other words, they figure out how their films can make a difference beyond broadcast.

I’ve written extensively about the stories we tell about aging and dementia – and about how they need to change.  Well…they are.  I was overwhelmed at times (cried like a baby…or maybe that was Banker’s baby) at the depth of talent and power of story in that room.  And all of it aimed at helping change the way we think about aging and the quality of life of all of us as we age.

Some of the films are already finished.  Some you can look for in the near future.  For sure I’ll be hosting a film series in Milwaukee – so those of you in my neck of the woods have that to look forward to.

There are several dementia-oriented films coming out soon – all of which push us to see the world through the eyes of the PERSON with dementia.  Trevor Albert is working on a documentary about Glen Campbell’s “farewell” tour.  Scott Kirschenbaum’s You’re Looking at Me Like I Live Here and I Don’t is out THIS WEEK (I can’t wait to see it…).

And my new friend Banker White is at work on The Genius of Marian, a beautifully crafted story of his mother’s effort to create a book about his grandmother’s life as an artist (shortly after she died of Alzheimer’s) – only to discover that she has young on-set.

All three are stories of strength, of sorrow AND of joy, and of families coming together.

When I wrote Forget Memory, the chapter on film was fairly bleak.  The best representation of dementia was a little blue fish named Dory.  But now, just a few years later – there is abundance. What hope for families.  And they will need all of these films they can find – it’ll take a 100 of them to move the medical establishment and the stigma.


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