November 24, 2003

Alzheimer's Patients Receive 'Simple Gifts'

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Children across New York State are playing the role of Santa’s elves this year by making squeezie balls, fleecy muffs, message magnets and other simple gifts for elderly Alzheimer’s patients to reduce boredom and agitation among the patients, helping to brighten their days.

These presents are created with direction from Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Simple Gifts program, a program designed to encourage youths to make simple gifts and to interact with elderly Alzheimer’s patients.

“The goal is to create understanding,” said Suzanne Schwarting, 4-H youth development team coordinator for Lewis County Cornell Cooperative Extension, who has used the program. “The goal is not just to gain some skills and make a tangible object but to go and interact with a person with dementia and find out that there is a lot of joy … because you’ve at least made a person smile.”

The idea for Simple Gifts came about while Devorah Greenstein ’61 was visiting her mother in a nursing home. Greenstein watched as a volunteer brought her mother a gift — a small, carefully crafted needlepoint cross. Although she appreciated the kindness of the gesture, she was also struck by the impracticality of giving her Jewish mother, who suffered from late stage Alzheimer’s, a needlepoint cross. She decided to find out what types of gifts her mother, and other Alzheimer’s patients, might enjoy.

Greenstein, who was at the time the senior extension associate in Agriculture Engineering, worked with Linda Buettner, of the Decker School of Nursing at Binghamton University, to learn what items would be best for Alzheimer’s patients.

Greenstein and Buettner drafted instructions for making these items, tested them and handed them over to Charlotte Coffman, senior extension associate at Cornell’s Department of Textiles and Apparel, with the idea that Coffman could carry the project further because of her work with youth organizations such as 4-H.

Coffman worked with young people and adult leaders to revise the instructions and to select the best projects to place in a Simple Gifts instruction booklet. The booklet also has information about Alzheimer’s disease and suggestions for interacting with Alzheimer’s patients.

“Often people with Alzheimer’s have limited verbal ability,” Coffman said. “They may actually know and recognize things but they can’t always respond. Having something to touch, something to share visually or with their [other] senses allows them to communicate. When they can’t communicate they become very distressed. By having something to do with their hands it calms them down and soothes them and keeps them from becoming agitated.”

One of the Simple Gifts is “Message Magnets,” created by gluing words to magnetic strips. Patients can manipulate the magnetic words on a magnetic surface like a cookie sheet to communicate. One day while Greenstein was in a nursing home she watched an elderly woman write, “I love to play piano” with the magnets. Her son immediately turned to the aide and said, “Yes, my mother used to play the piano,” and so they took her to a piano to play.

“She started playing and now plays in the nursing home. Nobody knew she played [until she communicated with the magnets],” Greenstein said. “It opens up all kinds of ways to relate.”

Another gift is a “Home Decorator Folder,” a portfolio with a photo of a room and wallpaper, fabric and carpet samples for patients to look at and touch. “The residents would love to talk about the old days in their house and their bedrooms because the old days were still alive in their memory,” Greenstein said. “It provides a concrete topic of conversation. Building bridges is so important.”

Barbara Baker, extension educator in Erie County and 4-H program leader for the 4-H youth development program, while visiting a nursing home with children bearing Simple Gifts, was struck by the positive interactions she witnessed.

“I think sometimes that we’re just really privileged to be present when connections are made from one person to another,” Baker said. “Some of the young people were able to really light a spark with the older people who were losing their memories. The really cool thing about it … is the inter-generational aspect … some of the staff members at the nursing home said that they had never seen these older people be as active and alert as they were around the kids.”

Simple Gifts also affects the children who craft the projects, especially those who take the time to deliver them to a nursing home personally.

After leaving the nursing home, Baker asked the children she worked with to write what they had learned and what they felt about their visit.

One little girl who had listened to an elderly man’s songs and played the piano for him in return wrote, “The part I most enjoyed was working with Abraham. …[He] was a very kind, gentle, loving man … I found out that Abraham loves, loves, loves, loves, loves grapes. He would eat one after the other. …This experience makes me so happy. … Next time I go I must stay a lot longer because I want to learn more about these people and their special needs.”

The Simple Gifts program is careful to avoid the use of the word “toys” for the items. In order to show respect for the people who were “our teachers, our doctors and our postmen,” Greenstein labeled her projects “sensory motor items.” Greenstein was saddened when she witnessed nursing home staff treating dementia patients like children. She stressed the importance of creating gifts suitable for adults.

“Everybody I’ve ever talked to finds that [Simple Gifts] is intuitively easy to understand,” Greenstein said. “It was important to me for many reasons: because seeing our elders treated as children is very painful, because both of my parents had Alzheimer’s, because I honored them and because my mother was in a nursing home and there was nothing there [for her]. I wanted to bring volunteers into special care units. I wanted ways to decrease agitation. It was because I love 4-H and I love volunteerism, and because I love people.”

Archived article by Katy Bishop