“Nothing, nothing I try, nothing I say, nothing I do, gets through to her!” How many times have we, the sandwich generation, heard this lament from our friends, our bridge partners, our work colleagues, or even ourselves? The problem is that our aged parents are confronted with the growing loss of mental capacity. Not being a clinician, I am not able to say what degree of self-awareness the increasingly demented family member retains, I know that the children or caregivers of elderly people facing dementia do not enjoy “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
So what do we do? How do we make the hours we spend with the elderly any form of a reward – or at least, not so punishing to our hearts and to our psyches? Music therapy is great, and we know that music makes a connection. In his new book, Blue Sky White Clouds: A Book for Memory-Challenged Adults (2012, Rainbow Ridge Books), Eliezer Sobel creates a storyboard of twenty-six evocative photographs in which the story ranges far, far beyond the four or five 48-point words captioning the picture.
When I first tried to use the book with a senior, I chose for one example the picture of a row of pines blanketed in snow, arising from a deep cottony landscape with the ever-so-common grey winter sky, rendered much more friendly by the black-and-white format. I was able to create a conversation about visiting a friend’s house for Christmas. My elderly friend selected one of the trees in the picture and imagined decorations. I know that I could have led an entire therapy session if that were my profession, using Christmas ornaments, gingerbread cookies, and candles, then going deeper into a patient’s own background to make deeper and deeper connections. My friend was able to read the caption out loud, and with the book open to that picture, remain engaged for fifteen minutes. What a gift!
Because I am an older dad, I was able to test out another hypothesis. I have long known that the cognitive abilities of children far exceeds their reading level or even their linguistic capacities. Might the rich, real, pictorial stories rendered in Sobel’s book hold the attention of people at the opposite end of the age spectrum? My own daughter, at five years of age just beginning to read, was able to turn to any picture and with some help, read the caption. More importantly, the pictures evoked stories, coming out almost without prompting from a little girl who has suffered from expressive language delay. Ten minutes talking about a brilliant black and yellow butterfly on a purple and white iris.
I am suggesting, although I don’t have research to back this up, that these evocative, rich pictures of the great and small, the very old and very young, the tiny and the vast, reach in and touch the cognitive function and emotional processing of the very old and the very young in a way that is usually reserved for the music therapist. At 26 pages, the book is more than manageable to the reader, and offers the caregiver the opportunity to connect in a rich and vital way.