Jeanne Sommerfield, therapeutic recreation practitioner (right), leads participants in the Workshop on Creativity, Aging, Memory and Health, in a proprioception activity before her recent presentation on Fearless Creativity in Creative Writing.

Jeanne Sommerfield, therapeutic recreation practitioner (right), leads participants in the Workshop on Creativity, Aging, Memory and Health, in a proprioception activity before her recent presentation on Fearless Creativity in Creative Writing.

A creative approach

Giving people with dementia access to creative activities can go a long way in alleviating symptoms

Dementia creeps in quietly, often  leaving the people affected and their families lonely and confused about how to cope.

“Aging is a challenging thing. We have to bring dementia into the foreground and make it a topic for discussion,” said Jeanne Sommerfield, therapeutic recreation practitioner and speaker at the March 8 Workshop on Creativity, Aging, Memory and Health, sponsored by the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care, which was attended by gerontology recreation and arts therapists.

“There is research showing the correlation between creativity and how it promotes brain health by creating new connections in the brain and enhances the quality of life. We need to educate the community,” said Sommerfield.

Dr. Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka, chair of the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care and researcher and trainer, was the first speaker.

“What we do with creativity is good for all older adults, not just those diagnosed with dementia,” she said. “We can design programs and long-term care facilities that make life better, as good as it can be, for people with dementia. Just because you get dementia doesn’t mean you should be punished for it.”

She went on to offer advice on suitable materials and equipment for programs for older adults with dementia, using dementia as a general term to cover a number of brain conditions that affect brain function. People may develop different types of dementia at any age, as early as in their 20s.

“Seniors need to feel that you really care. There is a person inside the medical condition. There is a re-thinking now about the causes and cures for dementia but in the meantime we are having a hard time getting funding for these programs that are shown to improve life for people with dementia,” said Gottlieb-Tanaka, who gave some examples of successful programs, including inter-generational programs, in use around the province and the world.

“Seniors with dementia can enjoy life, if only in short spans at a time in the moment, which is how we all enjoy things. They do well in an enriched environment which involves all the senses. They need something that is made just for them.”

She suggested to the participants that they get to know each client’s abilities and how they see reality and build programs around this.

Sommerfield got the workshop participants outside for some practical proprioception exercises at the break.

“Crossing the body mid-line uses all the senses and helps create synapses in the brain and improves range of motion, muscle memory and balance and prepares people to take part in mental activities,” she explained.

Her topic was Fearless Creativity in Creative Writing.

“There’s nothing better than listening to stories and writing based on life experiences. Writing and sharing writing with families and friends gives insight into the people they thought they had lost to dementia. Displaying writing at care facilities and with caregivers and care planners through social media helps them understand the people they are caring for as well,” said Sommerfield.

“It shows that these elders are living a life that is not easy but still has value. You are giving back their creativity in a way that can be appreciated by others. Recreation therapists can help caregivers see the people they are caring for in a different way and help clients develop a sense of understanding of the people they live with and develop a sense of community.”

Sommerfield leads the participants through an exercise in creative writing to demonstrate how it can be used with people with dementia. She reminded them to be aware of the balance of all the domains: physical, emotional, spiritual, social, ownership and new learning, in all activities, keeping in mind that people can have brain disease and be physically healthy, or have physical health challenges and be mentally healthy.

“Encourage creative thought, do with people, not for them. Encourage people to help and keep them moving according to their abilities. The point is what the individuals get in the moment, improving their quality of life. You have no idea what’s going to happen. That’s called creativity,” she said.

Gottlieb-Tanaka noted that many people do not talk to their doctors when they first think they might be developing dementia and in that way lose valuable time when intervention might be most helpful. While most dementias are not reversible, some, like those caused by high alcohol intake, dehydration and medication interactions, can be treated.

With dementia increasing as people live longer, Sommerfield foresees an urgent need for public awareness and understanding for the time when families and the community will have to do more.

“The public are the care partners. And we need to bring the individual receiving the care into the care planning. We can make meaningful things happen,” she said.

Participant Debbi Tearoe, a recreation coordinator with Down’s Residence in Vernon was pleased with what she learned at the workshop and the chance to share with other professionals.

“It isn’t even just all about dementia. I got some wonderful ideas that can be used in geriatrics and mental health. I like the idea that you try something and if it doesn’t work, you try something else, it’s up to what the group  wants and needs,” said Tearoe.

For more information about the Vernon-based Society for the Arts in Dementia Care, please see or


Vernon Morning Star

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