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Creating a Dementia-Friendly San Diego One Blog Post At a Time

Last year, my Girl Scout troop made blankets for people living with dementia at a retirement facility. I was excited to see the smiles on their faces as we passed out the handmade quilts. But when I walked into the lobby, the first thing I noticed were slouched bodies and sunken faces. Some residents were yelling or moaning, others sat completely silent with blank expressions. It wasn’t at all what I had pictured, and I suddenly felt afraid of walking over to offer a blanket.

I left feeling shaken. More than anything, I was disappointed in myself. I was now scared to work with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, a population I’d been interested in serving ever since my Grandma had died. When she passed away, I felt like I’d lost an important connection to my family history and heritage. I wanted to spend more time with older generations and listen to their wisdom like I did with my Grandma – but after that day, I wasn’t sure if I could.

Fast forward to February 2019 as I began searching for a topic for my Girl Scout Gold project. It’s similar to an Eagle Scout project, which requires extensive planning, 100 hours of community service work, and a final product that benefits the community. A classmate told me about JFS, and I was connected to Rachel Lehnert, the Coordinator of the Music & Memory program.

Every day, Rachel helps people living with Alzheimer’s or related dementias by using one simple tool: an iPod. She learns about each client’s life, their interests, hobbies, and family, and then builds customized playlists that promote positive feelings and reduce the negative symptoms that come with memory loss. The playlists are detailed and thoughtful, and the music therapy all takes place in the comfort of the client’s home. She talked to me about how Alzheimer’s doesn’t affect the part of the brain that stores music, which means the personalized playlists can soothe agitation, raise spirits, and bring back long-forgotten memories.

After our first conversation, I knew I had to incorporate Music & Memory into my Gold project. But how? I thought back to my experience handing out blankets at the retirement facility. Older adults living with dementia are so often pushed to the peripherals of society, and the challenges of living with Alzheimer’s are misunderstood. When I remembered how ill-prepared I was to handle what I encountered that day, it hit me – I’d create a blog that would highlight the Music & Memory program at JFS, share my experiences learning about dementia, and educate others on how to create a more dementia-friendly community.

While Music & Memory primarily happens at home, the customized playlists are also incorporated into the JFS Out & About program. These weekly adventures take people living with the early stages of Alzheimer’s and related dementias on fun field trips that keep them connected to their community. Rachel’s playlists play on the bus ride to and from each destination, and I knew this would be the perfect place to start my project.

I was really nervous the day of my first outing. I didn’t know anyone, and I certainly didn’t know what to expect. I sat down in a seat closest to the window, leaving the seat next to me open – again isolating myself, feeling disappointed in myself. The bus driver put on the music, and in a matter of minutes everyone was singing along and tapping their feet to the rhythm. I was amazed by everyone’s reactions to something as simple as a good song, and I sat there enjoying the sight of their smiles.

At lunch, one of the clients stepped out of the restaurant to get some fresh air. Rachel asked me if I could watch him outside. At first I kept some distance, not sure what to expect. But then he started chatting with me. He told me about how he owned a car similar to one in the parking lot, and connected it to happy memories he has with his grandchildren. He was so well spoken and shared so many interesting stories that we ended up talking for a good twenty minutes before we realized the group was waiting for us inside. I ended up sitting with him on the bus ride back to JFS and we talked about our lives. Even though he was a good 60 years older than me, I didn’t feel the age difference – I felt like I was talking with a friend.

For the rest of my summer break, I went on a new adventure with the group every Friday. Each week I became more familiar with the participants, and I met one of my favorite people in the world, Joe. I could joke with him and he’d tell me about his kids and his world travels. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I’ve always felt like I was born in the wrong generation. When I spent my Fridays with Joe and the crew, I felt a true sense of belonging. I felt like I was home.

The Out & About adventures were easily the highlight of my week. I would make coffee for the group, build Music & Memory playlists for the bus, and work on compiling a resource binder for other volunteers. As I learned more about dementia, I updated my blog to share new insights and anecdotes. I hope that it will inspire young people to be more aware of Alzheimer’s and understand how to better support people living with dementia. My time at JFS showed me that dementia isn’t something to be scared of – I was able to educate myself, and hopefully I can do the same for many more people.

You can check out my blog here:

It’s still a work in progress, but I plan to complete my Gold Award project by the end of 2020. Apart from adding new entries to the blog, I’m going to finish the resource binder and spend more time with Music & Memory clients. Right now I’m now back in school, and I miss the days where I went on new adventures every Friday. I guess the irony of becoming friends with the Out & About group is that while they may not remember me a year from now, they’ve given me memories I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.

Learn more about the JFS Alzheimer’s Disease Initiative and join me in creating a dementia-friendly San Diego!

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