Giving Thanks for Moments of Clarity

My dad will be 85 in a couple of weeks. He is in good physical health, and well taken care of at the Harbor Care program of Putnam Farm in Massachusetts. He has lived there for about 4 years, and has made various friends, all of whom have dementia, as Dad does.  His co-residents are at different stages physically, emotionally, and cognitively. He has a friend Katherine whom he spends a lot of time with; both had spouses for some 50 years who have passed away. They have been good companions, but some days they are at odds, as Alzheimer’s robs them of words and makes them agitated or sad.

The staff at Putnam Farm is amazing. Imagine working day-to-day with people who are old, who are in declining health with failing bodies and minds. The staff treats the residents with dignity, even as the residents are inconsistent with responses, gratitude, moods, and abilities. The Harbor residents are often only there for a short time. Local hospice workers come in and conduct lovely memorial services for those who have died, even as some residents are unaware of who is alive, who is gone. Loss is the norm.

Dad needs help these days with sequencing–the ability to put your clothes on in the right order, or to take a shower the right way. He doesn’t remember the field trips, or the pizza, or the holiday parties. He sometimes gets sarcastic and mean, as a way of dealing with the puzzling changes in his brain. He sometimes misuses words, and sometimes just can’t find the right ones.

The head nurse of the Harbor Care program is Beth Burridge. She works with all the residents, monitors their health/medication needs, intervenes when residents are unhappy or uncooperative, and assesses the services each one requires. She recently sent me this email:

Hi Maureen.

I have completed your dad’s most recent assessments & service plan. They are ready for you to review & sign.

I know your dad is doing a lot of compensating conversationally & socially but, as with all the residents I come to know, there is an awareness that is able to come out from time to time. When I asked him to write a sentence, he obliged & when I read it, I was taken aback & thanked him. He said, “You have a very hard job.”

I attached the sentence to the back of the service plan. It is very touching, and made me feel very fortunate.

Safe travel,
Harbor Care Director
Putnam Farm @ Danvers

There is so much to be grateful for, even as we struggle with what seems overwhelming or unfair. Sometimes there are these moments of light and clarity, and we need to treasure them.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Dad with his first grandson, 1987.



Art, Storytelling, Alzheimer’s: My APH Workshop

I’m thrilled to share that my workshop “Art-Full Storytelling: Drawing Out Clients” has been selected as one of 25 to be presented at the 2014 conference of the Association of Personal Historians (APH). To anyone thinking about branching into new areas of creativity and work, I say: Go for it.

In recent years, I’ve been working on ways to combine my love of storytelling, writing, and art–both for the sheer joy of it and for income. While my professional background is in social services advocacy, I have been trained as a facilitator of ethical/spiritual wills, and have presented writing workshops related to personal stories. I’ve been building a new business model based in helping people tell their stories: even when information is missing, there are wonderful stories to be told, shared, and preserved. Sometimes we need to look at new ways to re-create and re-frame stories, in a way that honors and respects both the story and the storyteller.

Here’s the description from my APH proposal: This “hands on” workshop will provide innovative, enjoyable activities related to art, engaging clients in stories and triggering memories. A range of activities and techniques will be shown, tailored to a variety of clients. Activities include writing prompts, color, paints, markers, photos, ephemera, and more. Some activities are particularly suited for clients in early or later stages of dementia, when getting a sense of personal stories can be difficult yet sought after and still valuable. The workshop will help clients reminisce and tell their stories in creative, meaningful ways–maybe not the traditional presentations, but valuable and enduring nonetheless.

The goal is to engage through focused creativity, understanding the realities of the brain’s changes over time. I’ll provide an overview of experience with Alzheimer’s patients in early, middle, and later stages, as well as those with no Alzheimer’s symptoms. I will share art exercises that foster connections and evoke memories. 

My 84-year-old dad has lived in a memory unit of an assisted living facility for nearly 3 years, and I’ve enjoyed learning more stories from him, even as some memories fade. It’s been a powerful journey. I am in the process of getting certified by the Alzheimer’s Association in quality care of dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.

Dad with his great-granddaughter in 2008

Dad with his great-granddaughter in 2008


Dad and Z in summer 2013. I so love these 2 amazing people–and all their stories.

I genuinely enjoy the challenges of helping people fill in missing pieces to create a valuable history. Last year, I presented for the first time at an APH conference. My workshop was titled “Adopted and Estranged Families: Rebuilding a Personal History.” You can read about it here. I’m pleased to say that my 2014 workshop “Finding the Missing Pieces,” a follow-up to last year’s workshop, has been selected as an alternate for the 2014 APH conference, if a scheduled presenter has to cancel. It’s been wonderful to refine and develop strategies for helping folks to tell their stories through innovative approaches.

Maya Angelou said it well: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” May we ask loved ones to share their stories while they are with us. May we help when missing pieces need to be found, and may we listen well.