Brain Stimulation and Respite: How a memory loss program serves people coping with dementia at home

Rachel Boucher with one of the participants of the memory loss program. Photo Sarah Whiting

It is “Through the Decades” day at The Gathering. Participants for the day reminisce about pop culture and history from the 1930s to the 1970s. After lunch, they do creative arts. Before departure, the cohort engages in table games. These activities are designed to stimulate certain parts of the brain:

  • Frontal lobe: concentration, expressive language, social interaction, and problem-solving
  • Temporal lobe: auditory stimuli, memory, and emotion
  • Occipital lobe: visual perception and interpretation
  • Right hemisphere: imagination and innovation
  • Frontal cortex: creative thinking

The Gathering is a twice-weekly program designed to serve elders living at home who are diagnosed with dementia, offered in Saint Paul, White Bear Lake, and Lino Lakes. The programming is specifically designed to stimulate parts of the brain that can be impaired by dementia. Dementia impacting the occipital lobe, for example, affects motor skills. Holding a paintbrush or pencil with movement works those skills.

According to the Alzheimer Society, almost 40 percent of people worldwide begin to experience memory loss after they turn 65. Dementia can result from several different diagnoses: Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, vascular dementia, and others.

Nearly 63,000 Minnesotans live in more than 2,200 licensed assisted living facilities across the state. The new state Assisted Living Report Card is a work in progress that allows consumers to find comparative ratings based on resident and family surveys, as well as ratings based on state inspections. It is modeled after the Nursing Home Report Card.

“We encourage people to seek out care from their primary care physician and get a referral to a neurologist so that they get a formal diagnosis,” says Lisa Brown, the caregiver services program coordinator at Lyngblomsten. “It’s easier to help educate and to help prepare program participants for the future when we know more about what that diagnosis is and what the trajectory of that diagnosis is.”

The Gathering serves people with early-to-mid-stage memory loss through programming and support for their caregivers. The four-hour weekly program serves those who are still mainly independent without needing hands- on care; people who are able to be in a social environment, participating in activities and connecting with others.

Each weekly session tries to have the same volunteers and cohorts of participants. Rachel Boucher, the respite coordinator for The Gathering, explains that even though people have memory impairment, they seem to remember each other. “It’s noticeable to them when one of their friends is missing,” Boucher says. “It’s beautiful to see how they build that connection and look forward to being with each other.”

Often what someone with dementia has most recently learned is what they’re likely to forget first. Boucher plans activities that not only promote overall brain health, but that tap into long-term memories — which are often more easily accessible than short-term memories — such as being a young parent, or childhood memories of school days.

Caregivers might often try to speed up processes to get their loved one ready for the day. This might include zipping up that person’s coat, opening a door for them, or cutting up their food.

“At The Gathering, we’re allowing them to do all of those things on their own, still utilizing all of those functions, remaining as independent as possible,” Boucher explains. “We’re getting the brain firing and using all the parts that maybe they’re not getting to use as much at home.”

She emphasizes the importance of music in every stage of dementia. “Music can stay with somebody […] long after other cognitive impairments set in.” Boucher incorporates music in activities such as “Name That Tune,” singalongs, and music bingo.

Recently, The Gathering has added professional teaching artists to their program. “Being together in an art group and creating art together, you have a sense of community doing a project together — a sense of accomplishment,” Boucher says.

Services for the Caregivers

When an individual is diagnosed with dementia, loved ones often become responsible for managing all tasks at home, including those that might have been shared in the past — finances, medications, scheduling, food preparation, home repair.

“A lot of caregivers will experience burnout that comes along with that increased demand every day,” explains Brown. The Gathering aids caregivers as well. “That caregiver comes to rely on those four hours of break every week,” so they can attend to their own health needs or socialize with others at the campus who are on this journey with a loved one.

Caregivers can also tap into Lyngblomsten staff for resources and support. It can be overwhelming to be caring so intensely for someone with whom you once did things together. “The majority of caregivers that talk to us have the skills and the ability to do it,” Brown says. “They just need someone to help empower them, and give them tools [for at-home care].”

Margo, a caregiver for her spouse, heard about The Gathering from an Alzheimer’s psychologist. “It’s the favorite part of his week,” she says. “I feel the same, knowing that I can count on Tuesdays to myself for four hours. It’s helped me to restore some energy and reconnect with things I had set aside for a couple years.”

Brown says there is a lot of enjoyment in the room during the weekly gatherings. “I hear the group laughing and conversing and having such a wonderful time,” she says.

“Dementia is sticky. And people tend to pull away because it’s scary. None of us want to be diagnosed with memory loss,” Brown adds. “My hope with our programming is that it helps destigmatize that, and shows that people truly can live well and have long, full lives.”

There are Gatherings in Saint Paul, White Bear Lake, and Lino Lakes.,, 651-632-5320

Healthy Collaborations

In 1903, Anna Quale Fergstad formed a literary club of fellow Norwegian women in the Twin Cities. She was inspired by women living in huts along the coast of Norway who had lost their fisherman husbands at sea. She recognized that in the U.S., many elders don’t have family members or friends to care for them. Lyngblomsten was created, named after the national flower of Norway, the lyng.

A few years later, the organization built a “home for the aged” in Saint Paul. Nearly 100 years later, The Gathering developed as a grassroots effort between St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Como Park and the Como Park Living
at Home Block Nurse Program.

Today, each session of The Gathering has art programming that is led by professional teaching artists, including the visual arts, writing, and music. Lyngblomsten Community Services offers programs thanks to funding from individuals, the Lyngblomsten Foundation, and an award from the Brookdale Foundation Group. Connection groups for caregivers are supported by Trellis and the Minnesota Board on Aging, as part of the Older Americans Act.