A dozen of us sit in a circle at Seattle’s Taproot Theatre as we pass around props and improvise like we’re on the hit TV show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? A soft cloth ball becomes a puppy. A scarf floats like a butterfly. A plastic clothes hanger comes next, and one woman turns it into a musical conductor’s baton. Sensing an opportunity, teacher Rob Martin invites the rest of us to form an orchestra: a tuba player, a violinist…even an elephant. Our maestro barely misses a beat as she begins conducting us from her wheelchair.
This is no ordinary improv class: It’s been specially designed for people with early stage memory loss and their care partners, and it’s part of a grassroots wave of arts and recreation engagement opportunities from botanical garden walks in Bellevue to movie matinees in Edmonds. All are rooted in a community that participants call “momentia,” inspired by a new way of looking at and living with the aging process.
Alzheimer’s and other dementias are becoming more common as people live longer. There’s no cure, and nearly everyone fears a diagnosis. But most people living with memory loss have a slow decline, rather than a steep descent, ahead of them—a fact that suggests the need for a new language for dementia. Speaking last fall at the Frye Art Museum’s conference on Dementia, Art, and Enhancing Well-Being, geriatrician and author Dr. G. Allen Power suggested this definition: Dementia is a shift in the way a person experiences the world.
That resonated with Marigrace Becker, who was working for Seattle Parks and Recreation when she began developing programs for people with memory loss several years ago. Brainstorming for a word to describe the free-flowing, no-filters creativity that people experienced when they painted at an art class led by Elderwise (another early player in this movement), Becker came up with momentia.
“I had that full-body ‘yes’ experience,” remembers Becker, now a program manager at the Memory and Brain Wellness Center at University of Washington School of Medicine. “I thought, ‘This is it.’ This is a word that can rally people. It has that spirit of ‘Yes, we can.’ It’s fun to say, it’s fun to shout.”
It’s easy to build momentum around, too. Having heard about improv comedy classes for people with memory loss in Chicago, Becker reached out to Pam Nolte at Taproot in 2011 to see if the company might want to start something similar in Seattle. “What she didn’t know is I had lost my mom with Alzheimer’s in 2003,” says Nolte. “So she asked the right person.” Taproot swiftly began offering classes via The Gathering Place (a program at the Greenwood Senior Center), and the theater has broadened its efforts to other nearby communities. The Frye Art Museum and Edmonds Center for the Arts also have extensive offerings that help people with memory loss and their loved ones play together.
Judith-Kate Friedman has been making music in nontraditional settings for decades. Now she’s doing it as the founder of Songwriting Works, a Port Townsend-based nonprofit that helps participants write a song in just a few hours. At one recent workshop held at the Edmonds Senior Center, her collaborators included a half-dozen music lovers plus someone on a Washington State Ferry boat who sounded the horn on a departing vessel from the dock nearby. “That’s right in the key of our song,” she noted. “Thank you, captain!”
Jeanne Hinrichs has had memory loss for about five years, and it’s become more advanced over the past year. Yet both she and her husband Roger eagerly offered suggestions as Friedman and her co-facilitator Keeth Monta Apgar walked, sang, and strummed us through the songwriting process—and Jeanne still sings in a choir, too. A retired college physics professor, Roger Hinrichs says he’d sometimes welcome more scientific data about how arts engagement helps people with dementia. (“It’s not like taking a pill to get better,” he says.) Yet making music always brings a smile to his sweetheart of 50 years, and there are absolutely no negative side effects.
What’s more, momentia advocates say that sharing these experiences offers new ways for people to be together. Pam Nolte says the big lesson she’s learned is to let your loved ones be who they are now—rather than who they were—and be fully present for the times you share.
“You may be taking care of all the hard stuff,” she adds, but amid the responsibilities, “we cannot lose the fact that this person we love is there and they’re there in huge, glorious ways. We just have to be willing to enter into where they are at this moment.”
Plugging into Momentia
Interested in learning more? The momentiaseattle.org website has extensive listings of activities taking place around Western Washington, plus this statement of purpose:
Momentia is a movement transforming what it means to live with dementia, changing the story from one of fear, despair, and isolation to one of hope, growth, purpose, and connection. Momentia celebrates the courage and strengths of people living with dementia and creates innovative opportunities for engagement in and with community. Momentia is a story of living fully and boldly and finding joy in the moment.
Julie Fanselow is the author of many travel guidebooks and hundreds of magazine articles, and she served as her father’s primary care advocate during his final years of life. She lives in Seattle and is writing a book on the arts and memory loss.