As the days shorten and cool, we enter the holiday season, a time of connection and memory-making. The arts offer a meaningful medium for this memory-making, especially for those living with dementia and their loved ones.
It can be easy to get stuck in ideas that feel daunting or infantilizing. I turned to scholar-practitioner Kari Rogenski, RDT, MA, LMFT, to help avoid this. She fuses her psychotherapeutic training with a deep reverence for the power of creativity in her work with The Hummingbird Project. Through this, she co-created Joyful Moments activity cards and shared that, “the intention behind the activity cards was to put into the hands of family and professional caregivers the activities that our program believes in, and are easy and doable in the home.”
Tips to Set Seniors and Caregivers up for Success
- Pick the environment. Where are you going to make art? “For a holiday engagement, that might be where it feels festive and inviting,” Kari suggests. Clear the space of clutter. To make the environment cozy and inviting, be thoughtful about all the senses. What does space look like? Smell like? Is there anything to taste? Is it warm enough? Are the chairs comfortable? What sounds are in the room? What music or sounds would add to the experience?
- Gather materials. “I like to present the materials at the table/in the space where we will be working. Make sure everything is out of the packaging,all your materials are together,and that everything you need is at the ready,” says Kari.
- Extend an invitation. Invite (versus tell) your care partner to join you. An invitation can make all the difference. Making art together is about two people choosing to engage. Kari shares, “I would invite my loved one or client to join me for the experience. I would always make sure it is about us doing the activity together, never about me teaching or overseeing them doing the activity.”
- Process over product. What does this mean? Being together is more important than what you make. “I suggest always being prepared, so you have to be prepared and organized, but then you have to let go of the agenda,” says Kar., She follows up with an example: “So, if making holiday pomanders becomes eating an orange, then we are eating an orange. Process over product matters. You just want to be in the organic flow with where the client wants to go and mirror that, join it, follow it, and make it happen.”
The bottom line? Use a strengths-based approach. Look for what can happen, what wants to happen, and support that! Try not to have a set idea of what should happen or the ‘right way’ to do things. Using improvisation with your aging loved one or family can help you connect while using a strengths-based approach.
The goal? “Dissolve the identity of caregiver and client and think of two activity partners engaged in a joyful experience together,” says Kari.
Holiday Art Ideas
Deciding what to do can feel daunting. Break it down by the different art forms to help yourself brainstorm. The most meaningful engagements will be ones tied to personal history and preference. Below are some ideas to help spark your imagination. Feel free to brainstorm and improvise.
- Have a tasting party. Arrange various foods on the table. Spend time looking at, touching, smelling, and tasting them. Different foods may spark stories or ideas from the past, or maybe it is all about the here and now. Either way, follow the lead of your loved one living with dementia and enjoy the experience together.
- Make a family recipe. Is there a meaningful family recipe? Make it together. Deliver the recipe to others to share. Alternatively, host a zoom party where far-away family members make and eat the dish together digitally.
- Make a collage. If you can do this in person, all the better. Collect past family holiday photos or generic collage materials for this craft project. Together you can create a holiday collage! You can use this to decorate or digitize it and make copies. If you can only meet digitally, screen share to create something on a platform like Shutterfly or Canva. Either way, share the final product as a decoration, gift, or holiday card. “I cannot tell you how many amazing experiences I have had with people who may not be able to communicate with words, but you give them the materials for collage, and they create the most epic image and message on the page you can imagine...you can do so much with textures and colors and words,” shares Kari. When communicating through dementia or other forms of cognitive impairment, art can be a wonderful medium that can often portray what words can’t. The possibilities for how you create your collage and what you do with it are endless!
- Create a centerpiece. Gather items such as lovely local produce, greenery, ribbons, candles, etc. This craft activity can be as simple as dressing up your produce for the week or as elaborate as you want. The best part about this activity is that you can engage in it over and over again. Dismantle the centerpiece and recreate it or make it anew each week with fresh produce.
- Write a poem. Start by just talking about the holidays and look at what emerges. Depending on how much language your loved one has access to, get creative. Make a haiku together. Maybe just listen to them and copy down poetic turns of phrase. Let them be the poet, and you can be the editor. Or perhaps you write the poem together. Turn it into a visual art project by creatively displaying or sharing it.
- Secret messages. Together brainstorm gratitudes or other holiday-themed messages. Write them on slips of paper, use little cards or die-cut shapes, then hide them all over the house. Throughout the holiday season, you can discover your secret messages.
- Share a story. Sharing, and recording family history is a great way to engage your loved one with dementia. Not sure where to start? StoryCorps has everything you need. Their website tells you how to start and has a platform to record on.
- Create video messages. You can be as simple or creative as you want with this. When we cannot be together in person, having a video can mean a lot now and later. Want to step it up a notch? Tribute makes it super easy to make a video montage.
- Dress up and watch a favorite holiday movie. Does your family have a go-to holiday movie? Dress up as a favorite character. Make a themed snack or beverage. You can turn your TV room into a whole nother world this way. Not sure which movie? Kari recommends Holiday Inn because it covers all the holidays throughout the year.
- Have a dance party. This is such a fun activity. Create a playlist of your favorite holiday songs. This should be an iterative process as you notice which songs work best. And have a dance party. Get others involved via zoom!
No matter what you do, Kari says to “Have fun, enjoy yourself. If you are not enjoying yourself, the person you are with is not going to enjoy it. It is always important to be flexible and improvisational. Having an open mind is essential. If it doesn’t work the first time, do not be afraid to try again on another day or at another time. Keep working with the ideas...don’t be afraid to try again. Try new ideas. Try different ideas. Put it all away and bring it out again next week. Be playful, have fun and don’t be wed to the product. Be engaged in the process.”