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At New Events In Kansas City, Music And Movies Make New Memories For People With Dementia

Anne Kniggendorf
Dennis McCurdy tried out a tiny violin during the May meeting of Memory Cafe, which featured a special guest from the Kansas City Symphony. Deb Campbell, co-founder of the group's local chapter, looked on.

Dennis McCurdy had a stroke on October 22, 2000. At the time, he had no idea that the stroke would cause vascular dementia; that diagnosis came nearly a decade later.

Vascular dementia is similar to Alzheimer’s Disease, and neither is well understood.

“Nobody knows anything about my dementia, what’s going to happen to me at all,” McCurdy says, explaining why his vascular dementia is similar to, but different from, Alzheimers.

“They know a little bit about Alzheimer’s and that’s why I am volunteering to help and hopefully educate people about what dementia is like.”

McCurdy is volunteering, and participating in, new events intended to be a fun way for people with Alzheimer’s and similar diagnoses, along with their caregivers, to gather in a supportive community.

Called Memory Cafés, the monthly events are a local version of something started by a Dutch psychiatrist in 1997. Volunteers have since spread the meetings across the globe.

Kansas City writer Deborah Shouse learned about Memory Cafés while researching her book, “Connecting in the Land of Dementia,” about her mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s.

Credit Anne Kniggendorf
Margaret Halloin of the Kansas City Symphony talks to Memory Cafe participants at the Kansas City Public Library in May.

“I kept thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have this?’ It’s an opportunity for people living with dementia and their care partners to learn something, to have social engagement, and to just have a really fun time together,” Shouse says.

Shouse, along with her partner, Ron Zoglin, and their friend Deb Campbell, approached the Kansas City Public Library about hosting the gatherings several months ago. To date, they’ve had four meetings: one with the Kansas City Zoo’s zoomobile, one with special guest meteorologist Karli Ritter, one with a visitor from the Overland Park Arboretum, and the most recent one, with Margaret Halloin of the Kansas City Symphony.

Halloin is an assistant in the Symphony’s education department.

At a conference room at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza branch, she introduced a wide variety of instruments to a crowd of about 25.

“I brought in a lot of fun percussion because you can make the noise right away,” she said.

She also had a table with woodwinds and brass — flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, French horn — and a strings table with violin, viola, and cello.

She plucked the strings of a violin and described the sound as being like raindrops. Then, her bow drawn across cello strings was “like a foghorn.”

Credit Anne Kniggendorf
Regina, a nursing assistant, appeared to have fun playing the Kansas City Symphony's gong.

Halloin ran her fingers across the chimes, and the audience clapped and laughed.

“It sounds like sparkles, which are my favorite,” she said.

When Halloin let everyone loose to explore the instruments, many expressed delight at the sounds they created.

“Hopefully, if they’ve played instruments in the past,” Halloin said. “It’s like riding a bike, and they get to remember how that feels and actually try the instruments.”

McCurdy said people 60 and older almost inevitably begin losing some of their memory, though no one is sure why.

“It may be 1 percent, it may be 30 percent, but some of them will wind up with dementia,” he said. “And, so my hope is to find a path through the Memory Café to inform them of what the risk is as far as we know the risk.” 

Credit Anne Kniggendorf / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Memory Cafe co-organizer Deborah Shouse demonstrated the chimes to participants during the group's May gathering.

A former veterinarian, McCurdy said that volunteering and participating at Memory Cafés gave him a platform for informing others about risk factors for dementia and possible preventative measures.

For example, he said, he’s glad to pass along information from organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Association and the American Heart Association. Each recommends a diet high in fruit, vegetables, and lean proteins, as well as 150 minutes of exercise per week and avoiding stress as much as possible, to achieve overall better health and possibly avoid or delay mental deterioration.

Making her way around the room, Shouse looked on with interest.

“One of the things I learned was the role that creativity and imagination play in the lives of people who are living with dementia,” she said, adding that Memory Café was “a wonderful ground for music, for the arts, for any kind of artistic creative engagement, music particularly, is a place that really can connect with a person living with dementia.”

After all, she said, “Even when the rational brain isn’t functioning at its highest peak, creativity is still there.”

Memory Café meets at 10:30 a.m. the third Tuesday of each month at the Kansas City Public Library Plaza Branch, 4801 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64112. Movies & Memories meets every other month. More details for each event are on Facebook.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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