Monday, December 10, 2012

Leaf Washing / Botany with Seniors

Leaf washing is such a beautiful activity to watch. I have witnessed young children do it many, many times and each time I fell captive to their careful movements. This work beckons a slowness from the individual doing it. I have read about and witnessed first hand what Maria Montessori referred to as the spirituality of work. Simply viewing these photos that I took 4 + years ago, I immediately recalled the deep connection this child had with the materials and the plant itself. See here: leaf washing at Blue Hill Montessori School.

Today, I presented leaf washing to a senior at The Bridge (yes, this time I presented the work fully before passing it over to her waiting hands). She became immediately engaged with the materials.

When she finished washing all of the leaves on the first plant, she worked on a second and then a third.

Above: She poured water into the porcelain tray and then dipped a cotton ball into the water. She used the wet cotton ball to wipe each of the plant's leaves. As in the classroom, the materials were carefully selected and their designs signify the work they are used for. 

Above: the smallest oval, porcelain tray is used to hold soiled cotton balls.

Above: I watched her wash the long stems of this Christmas cactus and her hand movements reminded me of someone plaiting a child's hair. 

Below: Here she is working on her third plant. She asked for a pair of scissors so she could cut away a dead leaf.

Below : While she worked on each of the three plants, she repeatedly pointed out to me how dirty the cotton balls had become after she used them on the leaves. This is a point of interest for this work. She was saddened that the plants had not been washed earlier.

She was so intently focused on the service she was providing for each of the plants. As she washed and wiped the dust from each leaf, she spoke. Here are a few of the things that she said as she work:

The plants love this! I used to do this for all of my houseplants. They love the water. "Make sure you get them all J----- and don't forget those leaves." Don't worry, I'm just talking to myself so I don't forget to wash any of the leaves. I don't mind doing this. Actually, I love it. It's like they are taking baths. I used to love to take a bath but I don't get to take them any more, just showers. See, the plants are saying thank you and I am saying thank you for letting me do this. I want to help. I want to be useful. I need to care for something. I do. I really love this work.

Shortly after she had begun working on washing the first plant, a second senior approached me asking for some work to do. This senior had previous experience with the silver polishing tray. I had brought in an antique, silver box that needed polishing a few days earlier and placed it on the tray. Now was the time to show her the box. I did and she had both the silver polishing tray and the box on the same table as the senior doing the leaf work minutes later. They worked across from each other, yet rarely spoke.

When all three plants had each of their leaves carefully washed, the soiled cotton balls were tossed out and the others items were returned to the tray. The senior who did the work carefully carried it back to the shelf to be used again another day.

Every individual desires purpose. They desire a spiritual connection to the world at large. Maria Montessori wrote much about the spirituality of work. I witnessed that, again, today. I saw this senior's attitude change completely when she became engaged in the work of washing the leaves. She remembered earlier times in her life when her hands cared for her own houseplants. She felt useful again. She felt significant. Her touch mattered. I read recently this truly wise quote by Aimee Mullins, "The only true disability is a crushed spirit."

At the end of the day when she was going out the front door, she turned to me and said, "I will wash more leaves tomorrow."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Creative Writing with Seniors 5 - Seeking the Familiar

by Paul Ponce Antoine Robert

I was going over and over in my head on just how to tweak the memoir /creative writing exercises that I coordinate at The Bridge. The first several weeks, I placed a wide variety of images that I had cut out from magazines on a table and invited the participating seniors to select one that they were drawn to and all did within a matter of minutes.

Too, I filled several trays with words, sentences and phrases that I had also cut out from magazines. Again, most picked several of these within a few minutes and began putting them together to construct short prose pieces.

However, the next time I repeated this process, the seniors were hesitant in selecting a photograph and some didn't. Too, they looked through the dozens of words and such and expressed even more of a lack of interest in these choices.  After I gently encouraged each of the participants to pick at least 5, they did. One of the seniors, who is Tlingit, said that she wanted words and pictures of Alaska. When I pointed at some images of Alaska, she grew impatient with me and said, "Those are from far up North. I never lived there!" Then other seniors began describing images and words that they wanted to work from instead of those that I had chosen.

I had spent hours cutting the pictures and words/phrases. I had thought that I was cutting materials that responded to their individual histories. They told me otherwise and I was so grateful. They were carving out their writing style. They were editing and doing re-writes. They were claiming the writing activity as theirs and the authorship, too. They did want to write. I simply had to listen to what they were asking for and provide those materials.

The first thing I decided to do was to reduce the amount of time I was spending cutting words, sentences and phrases from magazines. However, as I like the variety of fonts, sizes and colors found in magazines, I did want to continue using them, just less. Next, I typed lists of words that I culled from the personal history of each of the seniors. I printed out several copies of these. I also Googled Montessori language materials and downloaded lists of nouns, verbs, adverbs, conjunctions, etc., and printed those.

I used the paper cutter at work to cut the lists into individual words.

For the images, I went to the local Friends of the Library bookstore and purchased a small, stack of recycled Alaska Magazines. I cut one picture after another from these and compiled them into a short stack. I felt I was ready to invite the seniors for another memoir/creative writing activity, so I did.

First though, as there had been some confusion over the use of cookie trays for the creative writing activity, I covered each of them with black paper.

I passed around trays of pre-cut, printed words and, too, of words/phrases cut from magazines. The printed words included specific nouns such as farm, rooster, Iowa, Alaska, fishing boat. The seniors  looked at them and even read a few of them out loud, but they lacked the fancy fonts and colors found in magazines, so they did not initially chose them for their prose pieces. I think next time I will change the fonts and colors of the printed words so that they have more of a visual appeal.

After a few minutes of searching, one of the seniors noticed a picture of a cat and reached for it. She then saw the names of her cats, Panda and Mama, that I had printed out, and reached for those also. Another senior saw a picture of hummingbirds and picked it. Hummingbirds frequent the feeder here at The Bridge in the summer.

Prose pieces were starting to be constructed.

I walked around the table assisting everyone as needed. I came to a standstill behind the Tlingit senior who had been frustrated the week before. She was gluing words down on her paper and smiling. Yes, let me write that again. She was smiling. She had selected several words that I had cut out from the Alaska magazines and that were specific to her own history. She glued down two final words, folded her paper, then looked at me and said, "I'm done." I walked over to her and asked permission to read her piece out loud. See below:

Seeing the Light
Homes with history
Miracles lighten the spirit
Dancing in the 
Fish Cannery
others composed the prose pieces below:






The adventure begins
The sky is falling
Saluting the sun

Beaches found at sea
How will you come
back from vacation?

Another new year
Smooth ride



the beautiful
This is God's Country
Timeless blessing


Made by Nature


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Silver Polishing with Seniors - Updated

I am so excited to write that the senior who I invited to do silver polishing last week (the previous post) repeated the work on Friday.

Before lunch, I had to make a quick run to the photocopy store, so I decided, as I was already out and about, to stop at a local thrift store in the same neighborhood. I wanted to find a pair of silver candlesticks for the seniors to publish. Instead, I found a large, silver plated bowl for $2.00.

I returned to The Bridge in time to assist with lunch. After lunch, the senior who I had introduced the silver tray to earlier in the week began to wander.  I drew her attention to the tarnished bowl. She had the silver polishing tray at a table, with the bowl, minutes later.

She looked at the small container of polish I had on the tray and said, "Ok. This is funny. Now give me the whole jar of polish so I can get my work done."

I had prepared the tray with child-sized containers, an old habit. I gave her the polish and she gave me a smile. She put on the apron, but she pushed aside the underlay stating that it would get in her way.

She also added something to the materials that I thought was pretty clever. She had seen a Lazy-Susan tray on the shelf near the polishing tray and decided it would help her do her work. The Lazy-Susan tray was a great addition and I recommend it for all age use. The bowl is circular and the tray allows the one polishing to turn the object easily while its on the tray. It really works well.

I moved back and forth - from sitting with her and listening to her amazing dialogue about polishing, to out on the floor in the main room with the other seniors. Here are a few of her quotes.

Why do we have objects of beauty if we do not take care of and appreciate them?

I always told my husband that if we get anything silver, we are going to care for it and polish it and we did. 

It's hard to remove the old to see the new. 

I am not a lover of gold, but I sure love silver. 

When she finished working on the bowl, she worked on it for more than an hour, she took it to the sink that the seniors use and washed/wiped away the remaining polish. She was visibly proud of her work. After she raised it up in her hand and let it simply shine, she gave it to one of her senior peers and they ooohed and ahhhhed about it. It was passed from hand to hand so that all of the seniors could appreciate it.

Next, she cleaned up all of the materials and returned them to the shelf. It was gratifying to watch it all happen and for me to simply be an observer.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Silver Polishing + Practical Life with Seniors 2

I continue to slowly, but steadily bring Montessori materials to The Bridge and find space for them on the back shelf. Thankfully, so thankfully, I receive encouragement to do so from my supervisor and, more and more, from the other staff members.

I wrote not too long ago about taking one of the seniors, who had become restless, on a botanical scavenger hunt. I have been going through my materials at home, which are very limited, in an attempt to respond to her personality with the just-the-right, next activity. For individuals with first and, perhaps, second stage dementia, the activities are not lessons. They are not used to teach a new ability or skill. Instead, they are provided for individuals to utilize skills they already have but may not have used recently. Sometimes, like with science projects, these prior learned skills may be used in new ways.

Yet, as dementia is complex and may even appear contradictory in regards to descriptions of, some individuals with dementia may learn new skills. Returning again to the science, one of the seniors that has attended all of the Science for Seniors activities did not have any prior science experience. She has recently been using science terminology during other non-science activities and in her descriptions. She said the other day, "My sweater has a lot of static electricity today." This was two weeks after we had done one or two static electricity projects.

Back to the restless senior...

She is very detail and task oriented. She likes to organize and to clean. She has attended cocktail and holiday parties.  Considering all of this, I decided silver polishing would be the activity to next bring to The Bridge. I did so today. I had purchased a couple of wicker trays at the Thrift a week ago, so I had a tray to use.

I brought from home to work the following - three antique, silver spoons that were quite fancy, a small fork and a baby spoon. These last two items were also antique and silver.  A small closeable container that had a dozen q-tips in it. A small, ceramic container to hold some of the silverware. A container of silver polish, non-liquid. A small, wooden bowl to hold polishing cloths and used q-tips.

After I arrived at work, I went looking for the remaining materials that I needed. I found a small, plastic, lidded container for the polish.  I found a red, apron/bib.  I also found cloth of two shades of blue which I cut into small rectangles to be used for applying the polish and for shining the silver while wiping away the dried polish.

Also, I placed a dozen red, paper place mats in the second wicker tray to be used as underlays. I cut a supply of cloths that I placed in a tin. This was placed on the shelf next to the silver polish tray. Yes, I put all that I brought from home and found at The Bridge on a tray and on a shelf. The apron/bib I rolled up and placed on the opposite side of the wicker tray as the tin.

The silver polish tray. The red and white fabric item to the left is the apron rolled up. The metal container on the right holds extra pieces of cut, blue cloth - both light and dark blue. 

Close-up photos:

This one below is a little blurry...sorry.

After the tray and other items were arranged, I invited one of the staff assistants to come and view the materials with me. I showed her the tray and explained that it was for silver polishing. I briefly described each of the steps to use it and for whom I had brought it in for. Yet, I also stated that it was available for others to use if interest was shown.

There was a half hour before lunch was to be served. Most of the other seniors were engaged in a group activity on the floor. The senior who I described as being restless at times began to wander. I calmly approached her and asked her if she could help me with something. I told her that I needed to have some items polished as they had become tarnished. I also stated that they were my grandmother's (true, actually) and I wanted to make sure they were cared for, but that I was too busy to do it myself. Would she help me, I asked. She instantly agreed.

We walked to the back room and I showed her the tray and the apron/bib. She took the tray to one of the large tables and I brought the apron/bib and the red, paper place mat. She put on the apron/bib while I placed the place mat on the table in front of her. She then took everything off the tray and moved the tray to the end of the table.

"Sure. I can do this. I wish we had the liquid polish cleaner I have at home. I would have these done in minutes if we did," she stated.

I replied, "The liquid cleaner has a strong order that would bother some of the other seniors. That is why I chose this type instead."

"No worries my Dear. I will clean these up just fine," she stated and then went to work. 

And I mean work. She dug the polish covered, cotton swabs into every groove of the silver spoons and fork.

She then took one cloth at a time and began wiping away the polish. After twenty five minutes, she rose and went to a sink area set up for seniors to wash their hands and, now, the silverware. She then dried each utensil. They were so clean! They glistened when sunlight hit them.

Before I knew it it was time for lunch. The senior polishing, cleaned up the items used and put them back on the tray. I returned it to the shelf as she was hungry for her lunch time meal.

The cycle of activity that is so significant in regards to student work is not always completed by seniors with dementia. They may have no recollection of taking the tray from the shelf, so how would they return it. The cycle of activity, therefore becomes altered. It is now taking the tray to a table, taking things off the tray, using them and returning them to the tray that remains on the table. Sometimes, I bring the tray to the table to allow them to visually view the activity in hopes that they will then want to engage it.

Today's silver polishing activity warmed my heart. I saw familiar materials now used in a new setting. Montessori for seniors? Absolutely!

For a Montessori lesson on silver polishing go here. I think I am going to take away the polish I now have on the tray and replace it with their baking soda and salt polish. However, I must say that I am not in favor of the use of a toothbrush for this work. It might serve as a good tool for an adult that does not have dementia, but it could be very confusing for one that did.

Also, I do not see it as an appropriate tool for a child. I hesitated using cotton swaps with the silver polish tray today and, over the years, in classroom settings as I did not want to misrepresent how they were used. Yet, swabs are used in multiple settings and for multiple purposes other than cleaning ears of wax. Toothbrushes are generally used for cleaning teeth. So, you will have to decide whether to use a toothbrush with the activity or find an alternative tool yourself. Good luck : )

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Good Vibrations" - Science with Seniors 6

"Good Vibrations" was the theme of a science project I recently presented at The Bridge. My assistant first demonstrated how guitar strings vibrate when they are strummed or plucked and that this vibration creates sounds or music.

Next, I asked each of the seniors to place a finger at the side of their throat and to press it slightly against their skin. Then I asked them to say a short sentence such as "Good afternoon," emphasizing each letter sound.

After they said their sentence, I asked them if they felt their vocal chords vibrate. They answered that they had. I then spoke briefly about the word chord. That there are chords in music and in the throat. I, too, spoke about the human body being the first instrument. We then discussed the "music" the human body makes. We talked about singing, whistling, clapping, etc. All of the seniors offered examples.

Next, my assistant and I blew up balloons and handed them out to each of the participants. But, we did not tie them closed. Instead, I directed everyone to hold the top of the balloon with fingers from both hands and then to slowly let the air escape. I demonstrated this with a balloon I held. I showed how pinching the rubber together and then pulling it tautly open made a high pitched sound. All of the seniors repeated this and expressed amazement at the sounds made. For a brief time, it sounded like a balloon kazoo band was playing at The Bridge. The seniors were laughing at the simply joy this little activity provided for all of us.

However, most seniors can not blow up balloons as it just is not in them to do so and it could cause them to lose their breath or feel tired. So when the air went out of each of the balloons, my assistant gathered them up and we moved on to the next activity.

I wanted to show how sound waves/vibrations travel. I pulled saran wrap tightly across a large, metal bowl. I placed this in the center of the two tables that had been put together so that the seniors could sit together.

I then said in a joking manner, "Hmmm, I forgot the pepper and the spoon." As I turned to get these items, I heard a few of the seniors joking amongst themselves, "What the heck does she need pepper for?"

I took the pepper shaker and shook out a lot on top of the saran wrap pulled across the bowl. And then, well, I made a lot of noise, loud noise. I took another metal bowl and a metal spoon and banged the spoon against this bowl. I did so just above the first bowl. It was hard to see, but everyone did. The sound vibrations made by the banging on the second, metal bowl caused the pepper to jump up and down on the wrap. It worked. It was so cool!

But the finale was the best!! I had purchased a variety of wine glasses from the local thrift store. The total cost for all of them was $1.00. I had washed and dried them earlier in the day.

I handed out the wine glasses and my assistant filled them about 3/4 full with water.

 I put a small piece of cut straw in each glass to denote that the water was not for drinking.

The piece of straw was large enough that it would be difficult to swallow if one of the seniors did attempt to drink from the glass.

I then demonstrated how to make the wine glasses "sing." I dipped one of my pointer fingers into the water and then rubbed that wet finger around the rim of the glass. It hummed. I explained that I was creating a vibration with my finger and that was causing the sound. Soon, everyone was dipping their fingers and making their wine glasses "sing."

 Here a senior leans in to hear her glass "sing."

Again, there were a lot of laughs and many smiles. Each of the seniors repeated this action over and over again. 

Before we knew it, it was time for everyone to get ready to go home. My assistant and I cleaned up after their departure. All and all, there was a great "vibe" in the air during and after this science project.

Here is a little treat: Listen to the Beach Boys sing their famous song, "Good Vibrations."

The Impulse to Paint - Art with Seniors 2

The artist Mary Cassatt's painting, "In The Box," (above) is one of the most noted images in regards to representation and documentation of a woman's gaze. It is not simply looking. Post-Modern and French-feminist theorist wrote much about the gaze.  I prefer John Berger's critical studies on the subject. He wrote the following in his book, The Shape of a Pocket, “The impulse to paint comes neither from observation nor from the soul...but from an encounter: the encounter between painter and model: even if the model is a mountain or a shelf of empty medicine bottles.”

An encounter implies a conversation, spoken or not. I witnessed such a "conversation" last week when I put out paints, water and paper and invited the seniors to simply paint. I had no planned activity in regards to a pre-planned project. The activity was to paint. Paint they did.

However, I found myself repeatedly looking at a particular woman's art work. I watched her "converse" with her subject via eye contact and then express that conversation with her paintbrush. She was absolutely quiet, but completely engaged.

She chose blues to paint the Alaskan landscape before her. It was an overcast, foggy day. She looked down at her art, then back up and across to the channel and the mountains behind it. She repeated this eye movement a dozen or more times.

I was her assistant. I emptied and refilled her cups of water as needed.

She would stop now and again to view her painting's progress. She held her brush just above the image and then lowered its tip to make the next mark. After twenty minutes or so, she dipped her brush into black paint and signed the painting in the lower right side. She was done. She was up from her chair a few minutes later.

This is the painting she completed.

This is the scene out the window that she studied, "conversed with", as she painted. 

She captured its character. This artist does not always know my name. However, she does know how to hold a paintbrush and to control the lines and the curves it makes. She knows to add details so that the presence or absence of light is noted in her brushstrokes. She was born and raised in Alaska. The landscape is timeless and so is her relationship with it.

Witnessing her paint that day drew to my mind a quote by Rumi, “Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about… say yes quickly, if you know, if you’ve known it from before the beginning of the universe.”  

 Who are the artists amongst us? Are you one?