Somewhere in my readings about seniors and dementia, I came across a suggestion to use tangible objects as a way to unlock conversation.  So I had to try it.

At the time, there was a resident living with us who had been a well-known local soccer coach during his tenure at the high school where he worked. He thoroughly loved coaching, loved soccer, relished his time with the athletes, and took pride in his team’s record. Having a few soccer players in my own household, I decided to pilfer one of their soccer balls and bring it in for my friend.

When I found him sitting in a comfortable chair having a rather silent visit with his wife (his word finding abilities were strained at best) I asked permission to sit and join them. The wife gladly included me, and without any mention of the ball in my hands, I placed it in his.  And watched.

Right away his eyes twinkled and his eyebrows went up as a childlike grin burst through. With both hands, he began gripping the ball, feeling it, and lightly tossing it in his hands. He gaze was transfixed as he used a single finger to trace the stitches along the black and white pentagons that distinguish a soccer ball from other balls for other sports. After watching a few minutes I chose to dive in, “What are you remembering Johnny?”

Without looking up at me, instead completely focused on the ball, he began to describe a play that his team used in games. He used the soccer ball as his canvas and his fingers as the paintbrush. He then very deliberately showed me how a player would “kick across the field to this player here’ who would then in turn ‘sweep behind over here’ to outsmart the other team and score. Johnny’s animation and excitement was unleashed as he went to this place in his mind, a place of wonderful memories that connected him to the past.  And the words flowed from his mouth.

The rest of our conversation was easy, as I could ask things like “What did your players call you?” and he recalled his nickname – Coach B – without hesitation, “What do you love about soccer, Coach B?” and he eagerly replied – “I love the sport, I love the game” and so on. The doors were unlocked, and he came to life in a way I hadn’t seen before.  It was an honor to be there.

As you go on a visit to a senior or aging friend, I’m suggesting that you try this yourself. Bring something meaningful along to see what happens. Try to find an object that is significant to the person you’re with- a stethoscope for a doctor, maybe a ruler for a teacher, a police badge for an officer, sheet music for a piano player – you get the idea.

Here’s hoping you are fortunate, as I was, to witness and experience the unlocking of doors that were surprisingly easy to open.

-Susie Sarkisian, Director of Family Services

Kensington White Plains Director of Family Services Susie Sarkisian headshot.

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