My friend Jack served our country as a Marine, and at more than six feet tall, he is not a small guy.
I first met Jack at the local adult daycare where I volunteer in San Diego, California. He was sitting by himself with his head between his hands. He looked bored stiff, so I started talking to him.
He really had no interest in me until I mentioned sports -- specifically football. Jack shared how he played football as a youth and how his son plays professionally.
When I left that day, I thought, How can I get Jack to be more engaged? I decided I would bring a football to daycare.
On my next visit, when I walked up to Jack, I thought he would get excited. He didn't even seem to notice. I then handed the football to him; he still showed no interest.
I admit I was surprised. What strong Marine wouldn't want to grab a football?
Next time, I left the ball at home. But I remembered how many of the participants' eyes fixed on me when I carried the football around the room. So when I spotted an inflated, yellow balloon, I picked it up and started carrying it around the room. Again, many eyes followed me, including Jack's.
As I approached Jack, he reached out for the balloon. His whole spirit seemed to be lifted as he held the balloon. He didn't do much more than hold it, but it seemed to comfort him, and that's what mattered.
Often, we think we know what's right for our loved one with Alzheimer's, but they are not the person they used to be. Their mental sharpness is declining, and they are becoming more childlike. Multifaceted things that used to entertain them need to be replaced with simpler options.
So now, I include "balloon therapy" in my activities, with sweet, funny results, from people like mischievous Ed and naughty Mark...
Who knew that a 10-cent balloon could bring so much fun and joy to a group of adults with dementia?
All of the balloons at daycare are inflated to the size of a melon and vary in color. When I walk around the room with a balloon, some people reach out for it the same way Jack did, including Ed.
Ed seems out of place at the daycare. He's attentive and moves around the room like a member of the staff. However, once you start talking to him, his boyish nature shows through in his mischievous smile.
When Ed takes a balloon, he pretends he is playing dodgeball. He winds up like he's going to hit you with it but then he gently tosses it and chuckles as if to say, "I got you!"
Mark rubs the balloon to make a fart noise.
He gets a lot of joy in fooling me during his dodgeball portrayal.
Mark is in his 90s. He doesn't talk much but when he does, it's usually one of a variety of inspirational quotes he tells me as if he's my father.
Mark always wants me to hand him the balloon, and I always know what's coming next. He rubs the balloon to make a fart noise. He then tucks the balloon away, and asks, "Who did that?" He looks left and right, does it again, and waits for someone to respond. The knowing look on his face is priceless.
Other times, when my lady friends are sitting around the table, I will put the balloon in the center. Instantly, many hands reach for the balloon and start knocking it around. They love to bat it at each other, and the room is filled with girlish giggles.
One participant, who is unable to communicate and has extremely limited mobility, will at times try to move her hand towards the balloon. Although she is unable to participate, she chuckles as well.
It really proves to me that we must leave the stereotypes at the door and stay creative as we search for things that make our loved ones happy.
This story was originally published on Alzlive.com, a website for caregivers of people with Alzheimer's and dementia. For more tips, answer and support, visit the site here.
Mike Good is founder of Together in This, an online resource helping family caregivers succeed. To help you prepare for your loved one's future, be sure to grab his free 3 Free Tools Successful Caregivers Use to Get Their Ducks in a Row. You can also join him on Facebook.