Five engaging activities for older adults with cognitive issues

My daughter will always remember that one interaction.

My mother—her grandmother—had had a stroke and was doing rehab in a senior living community for the cognitive impairments that can accompany a stroke.

While we were talking with my mother, she tipped her cup of tea, the warm liquid running across the table. Seeing it, my mother let out a mild expletive—somewhat uncharacteristic for her. Her face reddened a bit, but then she chuckled, my daughter joining her.

In an initial bout with cognitive issues—or the initial stages of a longer-term condition such as Alzheimer’s disease—older adults can be embarrassed about changing abilities, or even fearful of judgment, uncertain as well over what is to come.

And as the cognitive illness progresses, abilities to engage in ways easily accomplished in the past can decrease.

While this situation can be difficult to watch and may even make it more challenging to connect with loved ones, there are ways you can increase engagement. For example, to encourage a loved one to engage in conversation or participate in an activity, you may simply want to consider adapting how you normally approach the situation.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, it can help to consider your loved one’s form of cognitive issue, best time of day and comfort level. If the person is uncomfortable, currently ill or doesn’t handle a certain time of day well, you should plan activities for a different time.

It also can be helpful to use easy-to-follow plans, enlarged reading materials and adapted puzzles, if those are of interest. Be sure as well to allow plenty of time to complete activities and respond to conversations. In addition, click here for five possible activities to share with your loved one.

Veterans tell their stories at Diakon Veterans Day events

Editor’s Note: In recognition of Veterans Day, Diakon held events at senior living communities honoring the dedication and service of residents who served in the military. The following post is a compilation of comments made by one of the residents interviewed at the events.

See our eDiakonnect article for more photographs and stories about other military Veterans.

In addition, a link to news about the events is listed at the conclusion of this post.

“As far as we could see, there were American and English ships and boats, then planes going back and forth bombing the French Coast,” Richard Schermerhorn recalls of his time on the English Channel June 6, 1944.

“As we got closer, naval ships started opening up the big guns.”

Welcome to D-Day, when the Allied invasion of Normandy at Omaha Beach turned the tide in World War II with Operation Overlord, the largest seaborne invasion in history. The day became the springboard for the liberation of German-occupied France and set the bedrock for the Allied victory on the Western Front.

“As we got closer, the water was over my chin,” says Richard, 97, and a current resident of Luther Crest, a Diakon senior living community in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  Richard remembers seeing the bodies of many troops on the beach as he and another soldier operated a mine detector, one of them sweeping and one of them probing. Later, as they worked by a road, they saw a one-star general approaching. 

The officer was Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of the former president of the same name.

“‘Are you finding many mines, boys?’ he asked. At the time, we had not. He was like on a picnic and this was the biggest invasion we’d ever gotten into!”

Richard recalls that paratroopers had arrived during the night, one landing on the roof of a church, Sainte-Mère-Église. The paratrooper, John Steele, survived, and today a replica of a paratrooper hangs from the church spire in commemoration of the event.

“Our main objective was to establish a beachhead, making it safe so more troops and supplies could come in.”

Richard then transferred to the combat engineer outfit and spent the rest of the war in Germany, “sweeping mines and blowing things up.”

He was a part of the effort to cross rivers to bring supplies, but not over the Elbe River. “That was the biggest river. We never crossed it because Russia had taken Berlin.”

The war over, Richard found himself in France awaiting transportation home when he was sent to a contiguous area of Germany. The country had been partitioned into four zones and Richard had to get American equipment out so that the French could come in. He also spent some time in Salerno, Italy.

Richard recalls that he enlisted in Syracuse, New York, in 1942, but was allowed to finish his college semester, reporting for regular duty in 1943 and serving until Jan. 1, 1946.

“I was a corporal when I went over and was busted to a private,” Richard laughs, “for talking to the Germans.” He had accompanied a friend, another soldier, on a visit to the soldier’s girlfriend in the Rhineland during a blackout night. Richard concluded his service as a private first class.

“I wanted to go to Jack Dempsey’s in New York City” on his first peacetime New Year’s Eve, “but you couldn’t move in the streets. It was so crowded, everyone was hugging each other; it was crazy.”

Richard married after the war and had a son; however, his wife died when their son was 10 months old. Three years later, he remarried and had a son and four daughters, one of whom has since passed away. His wife died two years ago; he has many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Today, he also faithfully attends nearby Nativity Lutheran Church and helps with worship each Sunday afternoon at Luther Crest.

To read news of the Veterans Day celebrations, click here.

Weighing options: personal care or home care?

The ads on television are insistent: choose this home care program to help your loved one.

And, certainly, everyone wants to remain at home as long as possible, but circumstances sometimes make that unlikely. Your choice—or the choice of a loved one—can therefore be difficult.

Do you choose to remain at home, because you don’t need an extensive amount of care, or do you decide to move and choose a personal care community (assisted living in Maryland)? The correct answer is not always the same for everyone; in fact, the answer typically depends on a number of factors:

Personal preference. Some older adults want to remain in their homes as long as possible, so they choose home care by default. However, as care needs increase, this choice may necessitate a later move to personal care. By considering options before a need arises, you can help to ensure you don’t need to make a more difficult decision at the last moment.

Abilities and needs. In-home care can cover only so many of a senior’s needs. As care needs increase in complexity, more intensive personal care may be necessary.

You can read more about choosing home care or personal care by clicking here.

The emotional rollercoaster of being a foster grandparent

In 2009, I was a new immigrant to the U.S. I was living with my daughter and son-in-law as I settled in my new country. At the time, they were foster-to-adopt parents, awaiting a placement of a child or children through five years of age, with the hope of eventually adopting.

I discovered that when you are registered to be a foster parent, things can happen quickly, suddenly in fact. My daughter and son-in-law were at work and I was in the house when I got a call from my daughter telling me it was highly likely two young girls would be arriving within a few hours.

My daughter and son-in-law soon came home and within a short time, a social worker arrived with the girls, ages 4 and 3. It was that quick! One moment we were a family of three, the next a family of five!

I have a lasting memory, one burned into my mind, of these two frightened little girls, standing in the kitchen, wearing very thin clothes—T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops—with a small plastic bag containing a couple of dollar-store toys in it. That was all they had.

They had literally just been removed from their home and had been given no time to bring anything else with them. If my experiences up to that point had not brought home the reality of what fostering meant, this most certainly did. It is a moment I will never forget.

Over the course of the next few days, we gradually got to know the two girls, whom I will call Sara and Vicky. They were full of questions, understandably a little scared. But my daughter and son-in-law did amazing things to make them feel at ease, answering their questions in a positive way, establishing a loving and safe environment for them and buying both of them clothes and toys.

Gradually, things settled into a routine and the girls seemed to adapt to their new environment. While I got along with both children, Sara and I seemed to hit it off especially well. Sara wanted to learn to dance but had never had the opportunity, so we bought her an outfit and some dance shoes and every week I took her to classes. I came to really enjoy our time together and remember those dance classes with great fondness.

I was more than a little shocked at how quickly it ended. Once again, it was all very sudden. It felt as if one moment they were with us, the next they were gone. (Of course, there had been weeks of pre-reunification visits, court dates and so on, but from where I stood it was as if I was a grandpa one minute and the next I wasn’t anymore.)

I saw the mixed emotions on the faces of my daughter and son-in-law. They knew the children were going back home—which, of course, is the goal of foster care!

But it was also painful as they had given these girls their love and were now saying goodbye. That caused mixed emotions in me as well, seeing what my daughter and son-in-law were going through as well as having to say goodbye to children who, in every sense, had become my grandchildren.

And just as Sara was about to walk out the door, she turned and ran to me and jumped into my arms. I will admit I had tears then and now as I think of that moment, but that also is a memory I will treasure forever.

I would love to know how the girls are today, but know that is not possible. I just hope they have as fond memories of me as I have of them. I feel it was an honor and a privilege to have been grandpa to these girls, even if only for a few months.

I have many warm memories of my first experience of being a foster grandparent. I saw the commitment of my daughter and son-in-law doing everything they could to make this a safe transition for these girls, facilitating the process of getting them reunited with their biological family. Even though they knew this arrangement was temporary, they gave their all.

My own father grew up in foster care. He spoke very little of his experience but he did say just how much his first foster mom meant to him. I never really understood that until I became a foster grandpa myself and then I was able to understand completely.

People say all the time, “I could never foster, I would get too attached.” But as a grandpa who lived in the home with his foster grandkids, I can confirm you will, in fact, get attached. You will love these kids like your own.

But, even if you have to say goodbye, it is all worth it! It is worth becoming attached to make a difference in a child’s life.

My dad spoke of his first foster mom with great fondness, even 70 years after he said goodbye to her. She was his mom for just a period of his life, but the impact of her love and care lasted an entire lifetime.

—Lester Wills

How independent living helps older adults stay socially active

My father, a pharmacist, retired in his late 50s when he sold his independent drug store. And then he went right back to work.

He did what is called “relief work,” meaning he worked a day here and a day there for other pharmacists who needed relief from the daily 9-to-9 grind.

In fact, he worked into his late 70s, by then working for a mail-order pharmacy. He wasn’t fond of computers but he liked compounding prescriptions—that is, filling capsules by hand—which a lot of younger pharmacists eschewed, a perfect match. That schedule also afforded plenty of time for travel and play with grandchildren.

For many older adults, retirement is much more than choosing senior independent-living accommodations and then spending one’s days just relaxing. For most, retirement is about staying physically active, remaining engaged within the community and learning new things. These older adults view retirement as an opportunity not only to do some part-time work—if that’s what they would like to do—but also everything they’ve always wanted to do but never had time for.

All of these pursuits lead to staying socially active—one of the best parts of independent living. In fact, being socially active has a wide range of health benefits. According to an article in Psychology Today, research outlines potential concrete benefits for older adults, including:

Improved physical health. It’s suggested that social engagement helps to ensure a stronger immune system, helping seniors to fight off colds, the flu and, according to the article, some types of cancer.

A longer lifespan. The article notes that those who spend more time with others and have supportive relationships—and are therefore not isolated—tend to live longer than others who are frequently alone.

To read more about the benefits of seniors being socially active, please click here.

Alzheimer’s and other cognitive issues: The importance of sharing what we learn

I am facing something a lot of people face: caring for a loved one with memory loss, often the result of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of cognitive impairment.

While I sometimes feel as if I am falling apart, I know I am not facing this situation alone. Not only do I have other family members to help, but I also have three colleagues who are either going through or have gone through similar challenges. In addition, we work for an organization that offers a range of community-based services geared to those who are 60 and older.

Am I taking this in stride? Absolutely not.

My 93-year-old aunt, who is my godmother and like my second mom, is in a nursing home with this very emotional disease. My mother, who is her 80-year-old sister, has difficulty understanding how my aunt can be suffering when she doesn’t look physically ill. Cognitive issues truly affect the entire family.

It wasn’t until my aunt turned 90 that we started to notice little things. But, like so many others, we chalked it up to age. My colleague, Susan Long, admits it was only when she insisted her mom see a neurologist that she realized the disease was worse than she had thought.

“My biggest struggle is the guilt that I didn’t insist she go earlier,” she told me.
At some point, it is difficult to explain away the memory loss.

For Susan Johns, who also works for Diakon Community Services, that situation occurred when her 90-year-old father didn’t recognize her. “That was my most devastating experience,” she remembers. “For 70 years, I was his little girl. All of a sudden, he had no idea who I was.”

Despite the difficulties we’ve experienced, we all believe we have learned things that we want to share for the benefit of families in similar situations. One thing that was particularly striking for me was how, despite knowledge that my aunt was changing, I wanted everything to remain normal.

While she still lived at home, we often made her go to birthday parties and other family gatherings with the hope she would have a good time. What we didn’t understand at the time was that these events made her more anxious. Looking back, I wish we had handled things differently.

It was only recently that we found a note she had written to herself seven years earlier after my daughter-in-law’s bridal shower. In it, she revealed that she did not know how to write her name or make the food she normally takes to events. “Something is wrong,” she wrote, offering a clear reminder for us that it is never too early to voice your concerns.

Although it was a difficult decision to move my aunt into a nursing home, we knew it was best for her as her disease progressed. However, many people may never reach that point.

My colleague Jenny Wagner and her sister shared the role of caregiver for their mother. Even though her dementia worsened during the last five years of her life, their mother lived independently with their support. Jenny’s sister checked on her throughout the day and Jenny spent weekends with her.

“It was hard in the sense that it was a long, slow goodbye,” she recalls. “You could see it happening and you were living with it. My mom always maintained a great sense of humor, making it easier for my sister and me to maintain our attitude about the whole thing.”

Despite the daily challenges of caring for our loved ones, we all have found or continue to find value in the time we’ve been given together—from deeper relationships with parents and treasured moments with a favorite relative to teaching our children respect for their elders.

—Debbie Herb, coordinator of center services for Diakon Community Services in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, with additional thoughts from Susan Long, program coordinator, Diakon Living & Learning; Susan Johns, APPRISE program coordinator; and Jennifer Wagner, community wellness coordinator.

In connection with the thoughts shared in this blog post, Diakon Community Services—along with Independent Living and the county Office of Senior Services—will host “Alzheimer’s and Dementia: A panel of help, hope and understanding,” from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 23 at the Pottsville Senior Community Center. The educational session is designed for individuals and families caring for a loved one with a cognitive impairment. People may register by calling (570) 624-3016.

Click here for additional information, including a list of panelists.

A pastor’s perspective on orphan care and the church

I am one of the pastors of Grace Baptist Church in Lewisberry, Pennsylvania. My wife and I have eight children—three born to us and five who are either adopted or in the process of being adopted. They span from age 7 to 20. 

Our life is crazy, but good, so good! My wife is awesome and my children are a joy! 

As individual believers, but also as the church, we have a responsibility and opportunity to take care of the fatherless. God tells us in the Old Testament (Psalm 68) that He has a special place in His heart for those who need parents, that He is the Father to the fatherless.  

And in the New Testament book of James, we read that is what “true religion is”: To care for those who cannot care for themselves, orphans.  So I ask, “What is your church doing?” and “What are you doing?” 

Let me also suggest a few potential action steps. 

1. Pray – Pray for your church and its leaders. Pray that they have wisdom in how to care for “orphans.” Pray for those you know who are either displaced children or those who minister to them through foster care and adoption. Pray that God may give you direction in how you can be involved.

2. Ask – Ask what you can do in the church to care for those who are in your sphere of influence.  Ask your church leaders if there is something more you could be doing as a church. Come to them willing to be a part of the solution. An easy thing to do is to participate in National Orphan Sunday. It is usually on Veterans Day weekend and, this year, falls on Nov. 19. (You can certainly focus on the subject another day; last year we had a pair of shoes up front on the platform for every million orphans in the world.)

There are a lot of resources available to you at https://cafo.org/orphansunday if you are interested. Also, I am sure that our friends at Diakon Adoption & Foster Care can assist you.

In the past at our church, we have had people give testimonies and also had focused times of prayer in our services. This year, we will be making some prayer cards for our people to pray for waiting kids, from adoptpakids.org. It will be in the bulletin, so that people can pray for them throughout the next year. 

We also have had different representatives from adoption organizations set up a table to answer questions and provide information

There is much that can be done! Currently, we as a church are providing a diaper subscription to a family who just took in two children in diapers. Again, ask—ask what you and your church can do.

3. Get Involved – Let me encourage you by noting that you don’t have to be perfect to get involved. God can use you right where you are. Not all are called to adopt, but we can all care and become involved at some level. I once heard a statistic that if each church would adopt one child in the U.S., that step would take care of all of the waiting children in the country. There are about 400,000 children in foster care or needing a permanent family—and about 400,000 churches. Obviously, the solution is not as simple as that, but you get the point. 

We could all become involved and do a little more to make a big difference. What are you willing to do?

—Calvin Cutting


Helping a loved one transition to memory care

Tom knew Sarah could no longer remain at home.

It was impossible for him to be home all the time and even with occasional help from family and friends and a local agency, taking care of Sarah—whose battle with Alzheimer’s disease had begun slowly but escalated recently—was becoming more difficult.

Tom knew they had reached the stage at which Sarah needed intensive memory care.

Yet, like many people, he had no clue where to begin. And even though he had accepted the need for care, would Sarah—if she even understood what was happening? Yet what had been her wishes? Where would she enjoy living? How might he even broach the subject?

While every situation is different, the transition from home to memory care can be a difficult conversation to have, if not with the person experiencing memory loss, at least with other family members.

If your loved one’s memory loss is beginning to require care beyond what you can provide, that person’s safety is at risk—plus, despite your best efforts, your loved one may not be receiving the care or even lifestyle he or she deserves.

Discussing such a transition can prompt a lot of stress, agitation and even downright anger if the topic is not approached properly. That is why it’s important to bring this up at a good time.

Discussing memory care is often best done on one of your loved one’s better days and at the person’s best time. If the loved one is at his or her best in the morning, consider bringing the subject up over breakfast, rather than later in the day.

Certainly, it’s very important to listen to the person’s wishes and consider individual thoughts and feelings. The discussion may, in fact, take place over time.

My loved one is transitioning to a memory-care community. Now what?

Whether your loved one has decided to make a move on his or her own, or you needed to make that difficult choice, it’s important to ease into the transition. There are a number of ways you can help them. Consider some of the following suggestions by clicking here.

A careful plan can help you to ‘right-size’ your living space

In my work as a certified relocation and transition specialist, I come in contact with many people who have lived in the same home for 20 or 30 years or even longer and who have found their accumulation of things to be overwhelming.

In fact, because of all their “stuff,” they often can’t face the idea of moving into smaller accommodations to begin retirement, as a result of health changes or to reduce home costs.

Moreover, the issue of dealing with too much stuff can affect anyone, regardless of age, even though I typically work with older adults transitioning to a smaller home or a senior living community.

Armed with a few strategic tips and guidelines, however, most people can tackle even the most difficult home-organization project with confidence.

The key is about “right-sizing” your living space.

A good place to start is by categorizing possessions into groups: items you need, love and want. A good space will contain only what we need and love and a little bit of what we want.

A great space will have only what we need and love.

A common stumbling block clients describe to me is hesitance to get rid of their children’s old belongings or items they have stored for friends and family.

I tell them not to let this hold them back from taking the first step toward getting organized. Contact children and friends to find out if they want their items back or no longer have use for them. If not, there are many ways to dispose of them, including donation to a nonprofit or selling them online.

The old adage that one person’s “trash” is another’s treasure is true!

Of course, letting go of items collected over the years is tough. Sometimes, though, it can help to take a last look at an item and share your memories about it with a family member or friend—and then pack it away for good.

Depending on your ultimate goal for reorganizing, it’s important to ask yourself if you really do need an item. As just one example, instead of keeping a dinner service for 12, reduce it to four.

I often provide these tips in seminars at senior living communities or work directly with individuals and families contemplating a move.

But whether you plan to right-size your living space with the help of family members or with a professional, the best way to approach what can often be an emotional situation is with the benefit of a good plan.

—Carolyn Doerr owns Caring Transitions of Mechanicsburg