Life with dementia: Seniors expand children’s awareness

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Life with dementia: Seniors expand children’s awareness

Brain wellness center creates workshop to enhance community understanding and empower people with memory loss
Genevieve Wanucha

On a recent sunny morning at a Seattle community center, a group of schoolchildren took a few hours out of day camp to share music and conversation with older adults. The gathering culminated an eight-week, trailblazing workshop whose goal is to help young people understand dementia – what it means and doesn’t mean, and how to relate to people with those symptoms. 

"Our hope is that kids can recognize memory loss in their grandparents and others, and know how to approach those people in constructive ways throughout their life," said Philip Culbertson, who lives with symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Scott Areman
Dance was one of the workshop activities shared by seniors and the youths.
picture of senior woman dancing with a boy

The workshop was created by Marigrace Becker of the Memory and Brain Wellness Center, part of the UW Medicine Neurosciences Institute. Its underlying purpose, she said, is to empower people living with memory loss and their care partners to become social activists in raising  in community awareness. 

"We believe that persons living with memory loss are the experts on what it means to have a dementia-friendly community, and can be active participants in making that happen," Becker said. 

She had the help of a pioneering group of seniors like Culbertson, who shared with the group that he can no longer play his really fast musical pieces on the piano but really enjoys playing slower songs with his adult children and grandchildren.

Kids gathered around Paula Schwimmer, a care partner, and her husband Rafe, for a reading of Barbara Schnurbush's book, “Striped Shirts and Flowered Pants: A Story About Alzheimer's Disease for Young Children.” After the reading, the group discussed parts of the story that resonated with the children, such as the need to take quiet time alone in a stressful situation at home.

Activities were designed for people of all ages and abilities. In a seated circle dance led by Susan Wickett-Ford of Silver Kite Community Arts, everyone held onto a stretchy band of rainbow-colored fabric, which they moved up and down and side to side to a classic Breton folk song. The circle’s members had to work together and rely on each other to maintain the dance. 

marigrace becker
Marigrace Becker of the UW Medicine Memory and Brain Wellness Center conceived the program.
picture of Marigrace Becker

Over the weeks, the group focused on the message that people with memory loss, amid cognitive difficulties, have different things to offer, can get out and have fun, pursue new hobbies, and enjoy time with friends and family.

In reflections on the project, participants expressed feelings of accomplishment, pride, and pleasure. "It was fun to see the kids open up to the experience of being with older people, which there can be some fear around," Schwimmer said. 

The group of seniors call themselves “Our Time Has Come,” named for a song written in 2014 at the Gathering Place at Greenwood Senior Center, an early-stage memory loss enrichment program. 

In her earlier work with the Gathering Place, Becker had heard group members express a desire to make change in the community. Since then she has pursued opportunities for their empowerment.

The UW center plans to offer the workshop on a regular basis, while training other facilitators. 

“Ultimately, I want to see more and more of these workshops happening all around the world, simultaneously,” Becker said. “The time has come to recognize that people living with memory loss can lead the way in building communities that are welcoming, understanding and accessible to all.”