Dementia Talk #2: Props

How can we bring lightness and pleasure to our interactions with people with dementia? I like to use props, which can be any durable object suitable for show-and-tell.

Introducing a new object to a person living with dementia can spark their attention and stimulate curiosity. If the item means something special to you, that can help, too, since it will bring greater emotional depth to your encounter.

Here are three examples of items I like to bring with me when I visit someone with Alzheimer’s disease or another condition affecting memory or thinking.

The Octaband®

An Octaband® is a colorful fabric exercise tool to play with, indoors and out. The inexpensive, stretchy device comes in small (8-arm) and large (16-arm) sizes. When you play one-on-one with a partner, you position yourselves on opposite sides of the center circle and hold a colorful arm of the Octaband in each hand. The extra arms wave in the breeze — somewhat like flying a kite.

The Octaband® is a colorful, stretchy, fabric exercise device developed by dance/movement therapist Donna Newman-Bluestein, DMT-BC, LMHC. It can be used in pairs or in a group. Photo from Octaband® LLC.

Anyone can enjoy using an Octaband®. The silky fabric loops around the wrist, feels good in the hand, and encourages rhythmic stretching. Try it with music or sing as you play. Photo from Octaband® LLC.


Hometown Photographs

When I get to know someone with dementia, I like to bring photos of the town where they grew up. Is it easier to recognize buildings than faces? I don’t know, but I’ve had some lovely chats with clients who remember going to the movies at the theater on Main Street or hearing summer concerts at the gazebo in the park. I download photos from the Internet to my smartphone or a tablet for easy sharing, but you could also have a copy shop print and laminate them.

Goodman Library, Napa, CA

The Goodman Library was my favorite building as a child in Napa, CA. It’s now the county historical society and on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo from NoeHill Travels in California.

Goodman Library in 1938, Napa, CA.

The Goodman Library in 1938. Napa County Historical Society photo from the Napa Valley Register.


Lap Labyrinth

The labyrinth is an ancient design experiencing renewed popularity today as a platform for stress reduction. A lap labyrinth is a wonderful, portable alternative to the patio-sized or larger labyrinth for walking meditation. I coach my clients to hold the breathe as they move their fingers slowly along the grooves of the device, tracing the curves back and forth until the center is reached and then coming back out to the edge again. I support people in going at a faster pace if that seems more natural. It’s also fine to skip from one groove to another. Any path can bring this unusual object to life for a curious explorer.

A Pine Lap Labyrinth from Stress Resources.

Holistic nurse Pamela Katz Ressler, RN, MS, HN-BC, offers handcrafted pine labyrinths at Stress Resources. The lap labyrinth, also called a finger labyrinth, is a portable device used for stress reduction or meditation. Simply trace the grooves with your finger as you breathe gently. Notice the subtle sensations of touch, texture, pressure, movement, light, color, shadow, and even sound. Photo from Stress Resources, Concord, MA.


What’s Your Experience with Props?

Do you use props as you interact with the person with dementia in your life? What works best: something familiar, or something new? How has this changed over time? Feel free to share your experience in the comments below. Or write me at mabartonst [at] gmail [dot] com. — MAB, August 9, 2015

PS: I offer examples of specific products based on my success in using them in my professional work with home-care clients. I am not not receiving any compensation for mentioning them.

Related: The first post in this series is Dementia Talk, already the top post in Joyous Paradox for 2015.



Isadora Duncan #29 by Abraham Walkowitz

Movement Modalities: Nia Dance Poem

Nia Dance Poem

With thanks to Karen, Maria, and Robyn

These first rare steps on the enchanted floor:
soft as sand dunes beneath your bare feet.

Words, dear words, bubbles of music:
humming sitar, buoyant drum.

Touch now, touch,
feel the ball of your foot shift the load toward the toes
as the heel lifts, a slight puff of wind — poof!

Step, sway, cross over and swivel and plant the foot,
waggle the tail, rock the hips’ intimate cradle,
oh, exactly as oceans rock,
cry in the throat as seagulls cry,
piping plovers, sand, fresh winds,

and still all around you will lift, swirl, and turn,
rise, pause, and bow down,

a whole roomful of women cresting and levitating
over the soft ocean of the enchanted floor.

— Mary Ann Barton

Isadora Duncan #29 by Abraham Walkowitz

Glossary for this poem

Movement Modalities, a new series beginning today in the Joyous Paradox blog about my search for creative ways to add more movement to my life. I’m thinking of all movement forms as potentially healing, hence the use of the word modalities, which we often see in caregiving as the way a health condition is diagnosed or treated.

Nia Technique, a movement practice whose teachers are licensed by Nia Technique, Inc. According to Nia’s website, “Nia cardio-dance workouts combine 52 simple moves with dance arts, martial arts, and healing arts to get you fit in 60 minutes — body, mind, emotion, and spirit. Nia is practiced barefoot, non-impact, and adaptable to individual needs and abilities.”

The humming sitar in the poem is a metaphor for the way the pulsing, soft-rock dance music played in my Nia class sounded to me while I was dancing. For the literal sitar of Indian classical music, see Wikipedia.

The enchanted floor refers to the soft, interlocking floor tiles used in the yoga studio where I took the Nia classes that inspired this poem. I have arthritis in my knees and neck, so I’ve been wary of fast-paced, aerobic activities that might be too high in impact for my 65-year-old body. Stepping onto the soft studio floor was a pleasant surprise. So far, so good.

Photo from Staff Favorites Best of Nia

Image credits: (Top and Middle) Isadora Duncan #29, watercolor and ink over graphite on paper by Abraham Walkowitz, American, ca. 1915, via Wikimedia Commons. (Left) Staff Favorites Best of Nia © Jeff Stewart Photography. Photograph provided by Nia Technique (

Note: I am not receiving any compensation for mentioning Nia or any other practice in this series. — MAB


How Science Can Help You Stick to Your Goals

Editor’s note: Happify is a light-hearted but science-based online resource for games and activities to boost happiness. You might enjoy playing some of these educational games yourself, or trying them out with your dad, your grandmother, or someone else you love. Happify’s new infographic, shown below, bills itself as “17 science-backed secrets to achieving your goals.” Let me know what you think. — MAB

Here's How Science Can Help You Stick to Your Goals

Who Are Family Caregivers? (INFOGRAPHIC)

Editor’s Note: This infographic about family caregivers was published by Alert1. Thanks to Glen Hougan for listing it on his Pinterest board, Aging, care & health: infographics. — MAB

Who Are Family Caregivers
[Via: Alert1 Personal Alert Systems]


Want to Help Me Write My Book?

May 5, 2014

Dear Readers,

Want to help me write my book?

Mary Ann Barton, September 2012

Mary Ann Barton. Photo by Wendy Wolfberg.

Rest is a book of readings about finding rest and renewal as we care for others.

The poems and stories I’m writing for Rest are relatively easy to compose. How not to love a character, Grandmother Cellist, who appears suddenly before me as I gaze at a favorite painting on my widescreen computer monitor. I imagine her playing music after dinner with her grandchildren, drawing her bow in an exquisite arc of notes. I imagine their music as a balm of sound that reaches the kitchen worker toiling downstairs and the new mother resting, exhausted, upstairs in bed.

However, these evocations of happiness — of joy, beauty, comfort, and intimate family connections — aren’t just aesthetic considerations for me.

Increasingly, as I read about recent scientific studies of the structure and function of the brain, I’m coming to see poems, songs, and paintings as tools that we can use in structured ways to help ourselves become calmer and more resilient, even in the midst of hard times.

I first started thinking about art, happiness, and healing two years ago, when I took a course called Taking in the Good taught by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

“You can use your mind to change your brain,” Hanson told us, in ways that “change your mind for the better.” Simply by paying attention to small moments of positive experience, Hanson says, we can, over time, strengthen the circuits of the brain that promote “contentment, calm, and confidence.” *

I wish I could write a brilliant essay for you that explains how modern neuroscience, ancient contemplative practices, classic European paintings, and my blog have helped me cope with the hardships of aging and caregiving. I’ve tried to do it, but I’m just not there yet.

Here’s where you come in.

I Want to Know What Brings You Joy

What brings you joy today? What are those small moments of relief that raise your spirits or ease your pain?

I’m talking about specific sights, sounds, tastes, smells. Touches. Textures. Heat. Cold. Flame. Glances. Words spoken and understood. Movement. Stillness. Silliness. Pratfalls. Puns. Wiggles. Giggles. Barks. Purrs.

So how do we do this?

Let’s start with a survey. I’ll give you eight words, and you give me eight associations. You could give me just one word, or describe a complex image. Tell me something you remember. Something you want. Something you’d forgotten. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with joy. But it has to be specific.

REST Survey #1: Eight Words, Eight Associations.

Take this survey any number of times. Forward it to your friends. Link to it on your Facebook page. Post it on your blog. And if nothing comes to mind for a word, just write “Nothing today.”

Writing is a mystery. Who knows where these words will take us!

All the best,
Mary Ann

PS: I chose the eight words in this survey for their somewhat mysterious importance to me as a writer, so they may not seem to relate to the topic of this post, which is about sources of joy in our lives. Please know that whatever you write will be received with gratitude.

* Hanson, Rick, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. New York: Harmony Books, 2013.


5 New Tips for a More Peaceful Feast: Thanksgiving 2013

Still life with a Pumpkin, Peaches and a Silver Goblet on a Table Top by Francois BonvinLast year I wrote my first Thanksgiving post for you, 5 Tips for a More Peaceful Feast: Thanksgiving 2012. It was a wonderful holiday, full of warmth and laughter. It was also a day full of sorrow, with one family member suffering from his last illness. He died just five weeks later.

Given these family sorrows, I imagine that this year’s feast will bring the deeper sense of belonging that comes from sharing losses. Because last year’s tips helped me to stay grounded and avoid eating everything in sight, here’s what I’m planning to do this year:

1. Start the day with a private song. Singing is a good way to bring deep breaths to the body and peace to the mind. I sing each morning in the bath. You can sing a favorite song from your childhood, improvise a tune without words, or listen to music that you love and hum or sing along.

2. Leave a note of gratitude under your pillow. Just take a moment to write one sentence on a piece of paper: I am grateful for ____. Put the note under your pillow. Then, the next morning, read it out loud to yourself. How do you feel? Are there more things you’re grateful for? Is there someone you want to thank? Extra tip: If you can’t think of anything you’re grateful for now, write down something you were thankful for in the past, or hope to be in the future.

3. As you greet others, connect with them by noticing their hands.  Look at and clasp the person’s hand, if that’s appropriate, or make eye contact and then notice their hands. Gazing at the hands isn’t as intrusive as extended eye contact, but the hand is very personal, so it’s a good way to become closer to someone. If you are alone, allow yourself to notice your own hands from time to time.

4. Smile before you eat. Sit at the table and look down at your plate. Allow your gaze to rest on the food. Smile. Inhale gently, letting your smile rise up toward your eyes. Exhale, relaxing all the muscles in your cheeks and around your eyes and your mouth. Look up and smile again. Breathe in through your nose. Relax, breathing out through your mouth. Then, as you begin eating, notice how it feels to smell and taste the food, to make the exquisitely complex movements of chewing or sipping and swallowing.

5. Before you sleep, notice one unexpected thought. Often, when I pay attention to my experience in the moment, I notice something unexpected. It might be an observation about myself, such as noticing the play of light and shadow across the back of my hands as I type and thinking, “Oh, my hands are older this year.” It might be a response to a familiar sound, such as hearing someone play the piano and thinking, “Oh, I remember singing that song together!” We can deepen our experience by pausing and noticing this thought, in a curious and nonjudgmental way, and sharing it with someone else, or just with ourselves.

May you have a peaceful feast.

Happy Thanksgiving,

Mary Ann

Image credit:  Still life with a Pumpkin, Peaches and a Silver Goblet on a Table Top by François Bonvin (1817–1887), oil on canvas, 1858. By François Bonvin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Stove Reminder™: A Home Safety Tool for Your Kitchen by Alan Majer

Editor’s note: Today’s post gives us a glimpse into the world of inventors who develop products to help individuals maintain their independence at home. I invited Canadian entrepreneur Alan Majer to share his experience with Joyous Paradox readers because I’m fascinated by the stories behind innovative products and services for elders and their families. I don’t have any financial interest in Majer’s company, Good Robot, so this isn’t a product review or endorsement. Your comments are welcome. Have you had trouble with charred pots on the stove? — MAB

Did I Leave the Stove on? A Meme.“Do you have anything that could help out with the stove?” It was a question I’d been asked quite a few times after discussing some of the aging-in-place gadgets that Good Robot makes.

Now this was a bit of a surprise to me. After all, when we first surveyed caregivers, a lot of them said that having a home monitoring system that could collect data about their loved one’s stove usage was pretty low on their list. (This chart shows it as second-to-last in importance.)

My lesson on this one? Sometimes the stats don’t tell the whole story.

So I asked a few of my colleagues if they’d seen any similar reactions. Indeed, everyone else had, too. It was enough to convince us that we ought to investigate whether we could help.

We learned that stove safety is a huge concern. Cooking is the most common cause of residential fires, and leaving a stove unattended is the biggest culprit. We also learned that adults 85+ are at the highest risk of a fire death (4.5 times the norm). And while most of us know we shouldn’t leave a stove unattended, it’s easy to get distracted, even by answering the door or taking a phone call.

Stove ReminderIt’s no surprise why stoves are such a problem. If you look at all the things we own, they’re getting smarter – smart cars, smart phones. Yet most stoves are pretty dumb. On a typical stove, if you set the burner on high, it will keep on heating your food to the point of fire. An unwatched pot could burn your house down if you don’t take action to stop it. That’s really the opposite of safe.

So we tried to tackle the root of the problem: forgetting to turn off the stove.

The result is Stove Reminder™, a $99 gadget available at This little unit raises a stove’s IQ. It automatically senses when the stove is in use, and chimes a periodic reminder to ensure you don’t forget and leave the stove on by mistake. Bringing people’s attention to the stove when they’re cooking can make a big difference. People become more aware of their stove usage too. One user said our unit helped them realize that they sometimes forget and leave the stove on minimum temperature at night.

Just as important is the link between cooking and independence. Think Grandma’s cookies, or the social aspects of cooking and sharing a meal. Dr. Sharon Cohen is a neurologist and director of the Toronto Memory Program, one of Canada’s largest facilities for the diagnosis and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders. Cohen highlights the important of maintaining individual autonomy and self-esteem as we age.  “Stove Reminder is a vast improvement over traditional safety approaches which preclude stove use and prevent seniors from cooking for themselves,“ she says.

Last, in addition to Stove Reminder, here are some other kitchen safety tips that can help avoid kitchen fires:

  • Stay in the kitchen when cooking.
  • Keep flammable items away from the stove.
  • Turn pot handles inward where they won’t get bumped by accident.
  • Avoid loose sleeves or clothing.
  • Use the back burners whenever possible.
  • Keep your stove clean; grease or food residue may catch fire.
  • Avoid alcohol consumption; remain alert when cooking.

— Alan Majer, CEO, Good Robot

For more on home safety, see Infographic on Alzheimer’s Disease and Home Safety.

For Alan Majer’s essay on caregiving in Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina, see The Courage of a Caregiver.

Image credits (from top): Portrait of an Old Woman, oil on canvas, 1611-1612. By Guido Reni [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Caption added at Stove Reminder graphic from Good Robot, 2013.