Look Alzheimer’s in the eye this year.

Over the last few months our Director of Education and Innovation, Jean Garboden, and I have traveled to several of Compass’ senior living communities to conduct training we call Caring is What Makes Us Human: Empathetic communication with those who have dementia. Its evolved into a powerful and engaging series of stories that reflect the more than 10 years we’ve been working to try to understand dementia and finding a better way to care for those who have it. Our employees are required to attend. It’s those that are not required to attend that inspire me.

For several of the trainings, we’ve had elders and family members join us. In one recent session, I was inspired looking out at the elders’ faces that were engaged in the conversation. They were there because they wanted to be. They aren’t afraid of knowing what Alzheimer’s or other dementias can do. And, with their presence, they are facing it head-on. Elders are the ones that may see this daily amongst their peers and wonder, “am I next”? And yet, they were the ones most interested in learning about how they can care, or at least understand, what it means and how to help others.

These elders inspire me because they are engaging in the conversation that most are too afraid to have. They are arming themselves with the knowledge that will help to eliminate fear. They are building understanding that those with dementia are still there and they are whole human beings to be loved, not feared. They are showing us that age, impairments, and change are not to be feared, but understood and accepted. The elders that engage in this conversation are quiet ambassadors to making a better elderhood for the rest of us that will eventually be there.

Like cancer, the movement to find a cure for Alzheimer’s is growing because most of us know, or have known, someone with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. If you haven’t yet, you will. By learning about dementia and how we can still communicate with those who have it, you participate in the movement to change the language around “locked units”. These are not prisoners to be locked away. They are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, aunts, and uncles. They are in need of being safe and cared for, yes. But, they are not to be feared and avoided. They simply need us to look them in the eye, sing to them, dance with them, and know they still desire to be heard and understood.

As this new year starts please make a resolution that will make real change with one simple act. Resolve to learn more, participate in conversations, and try to understand Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Follow in these elders’ footsteps and learn what you can do to help just one individual. After all, caring is what makes us human.

About the Author:  

Photo on 9-7-17 at 4.53 PM

Amira T. Fahoum is the Director of Marketing and Director of Operations, Northwest Region for Compass Senior Living located  in Eugene, Oregon. Her path to senior living started when she simply decided to be open to possibilities in life. Possibilities are what led her to what is now a career in serving elders and families. Possibilities also led her into the world of becoming a Certified Eden Associate, Certified Validation Worker, Levels I and II, and a licensed Assisted Living Administrator in Oregon. On her journey with Compass, she has found true reward in working with, and for, the people that care for others.

Disrupting Aging

Slow down….and listen. They said. Turn your cell phones on. They said. Share with the world what is happening. After 110 performances on Changing Aging’s Disrupt Aging live theater event, held recently in Eugene, Oregon, its hard to imagine this formula not working to get people’s attention. The message: its time we change how we think about aging.

Changing Aging attendance group 2JPG
Compass Senior Living crew attending the Changing Aging event (from left): Amira, Kory, Beth, Jean, Becca, Niki. (Catherine and Mary not pictured)

The day started with a small group lunch with Dr. Bill Thomas, geriatrician and founder of The Eden Alternative. The group of about 20 were all there for various reasons–from AARP representatives to an elder currently living in a senior community. Dr. Thomas has started what he calls #AskDrBill– an egalitarian way of answering everyone’s hardest questions about aging (for which he specifically asks).

I asked the hardest question I knew about aging: aging comes with loss, how do you ‘be okay’ with not being able to do everything that you used to be able to do? To which Dr. Bill gave his words of wisdom based on his experience, “Change comes with loss, not just aging. If you looked at your checkbook the same way, you’d only record the expenses but not the income. And, that’s not an accurate picture of what your finances look like. Pay attention to the ‘other side’ of the ledger book. We pay attention to the loss and not what is to be gained with the change.”

Gain with the change. The biggest ‘aha’ moment as he said this was not the metaphor of the ledger book–although that is a great metaphor for how one can look at what life throws at you–it was that aging is just change. And, we have lots of change in our lives. So, why is this change so different from the others? It needs flexibility, resiliency, thoughtfulness, and planning. Like any change that life throws our way. Its all between our ears in the way the change is framed.

Disrupt Dementia–The Momentia Movement. The afternoon transitioned into a “non-fiction theater” event as the Changing Aging crew calls it. The group performed two simultaneous tales of a Ugandan refugee and those living with dementia. The Ugandan refugee, Samite (pronounced SA-me-tay), performs the music that he composes as his journey inspires him and life’s challenges, and changes, come his way; as he rebuilds his life. Similarly, the stories told by the elders living with dementia, in their own words, tell the tale of changes that come to them, but how they are inspired to continue on their journey as life throws these particular changes into their own paths. It’s a heart-wrenching, but necessary, truth about how those living with dementia are doing just that–living— and it is up to us to help them adapt and keep living.

Disrupt Aging. As the evening progressed, a second performance blended myth and science; challenging us to re-frame aging. Dr. Bill asks “what if?” What if everything we knew about aging was wrong? Accompanied with music, storytelling, and, yes, audience participation games, we learned that there is no such thing as a “senior moment”. We all simply have a “filing cabinet” and, as we get older, the filing cabinet is more full–and more messy– and it just takes a little longer to find what we are looking for. What’s more, older brains have the power of gist. Older brains have the power to see patterns and pull from past experience to understand what is being explained and, well, you get the gist. Dr. Bill challenged us to stop perpetuating the myth of the senior moment. “Social change starts between the ears,” says Dr. Thomas. Just like racism and sexism, ageism persists when we tacitly agree to ageist comments and jokes by not saying anything. When we let it go, we imply that its okay to perpetuate myths on aging and see elders as declining. The Changing Aging tour is challenging us to perceive aging as a vivid and enlivening process that presents us with extraordinary risks, and rewards. 

We are all getting older and will be considered old, if we aren’t already. How will you approach this change?


Related posts and resources:

I have a 20-year old brain in an old body

Elderhood–what do we want to do with another 30 years?

Human connection–at the core of everything that matters in the world

My shrinking world

Featured image photo courtesy of Changingaging.org.

About the Author: Amira T. Fahoum is the Director of Marketing and Director of Operations, Northwest Region for Compass Senior Living located in Eugene, Oregon. Her path to senior living started when she simply decided to be open to possibilities in life. Possibilities are what led her to what is now a career in serving elders and families. Possibilities also led her into the world of becoming a Certified Eden Associate, Certified Validation Worker, Levels I and II, and a licensed Assisted Living Administrator in Oregon. On her journey with Compass, she has found true reward in working with, and for, the people that care for others. She lives in Eugene with her husband, Michael, where they enjoy golf, travel, and volunteering.

Campground Conversations – Elder storyteller

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”– Rudyard Kipling

Every year, my son and I celebrate by doing something we both love…camping, kayaking, being in nature, and experiencing things together for just 24-36 hours a year!  This year, after work, we headed up to Door County Peninsula Park in Wisconsin.


It was a dark and rainy evening. We arrived at our campground by Rowley’s Bay, WI. The wonderful ladies who checked us in told us everything we needed or wanted to know about what was in the area and where we could grab a great meal.

Unfortunately, we didn’t think we would make the renowned Fish Boil and performance that was down the road via a trail through the woods. After settling in, we decided to head down the trail, (the rain had stopped for us) and at least get the dinner if we missed the “performance”.

We arrived at the Inn,  and walked inside, quietly joining the crowd that was intently listening to the story that was being told.

In the center of this crowd was a man sitting backwards on his roller walker. We caught the last third of the story, but we looked at each other and knew—we had stumbled into something really awesome and special. This story telling gentleman was filling the space  with his rich voice and using his hands to help envision what he was sharing. My son and I became instantly enthralled with his story and his large capable hands that showed all the signs of an experienced, full life.


He told the story of the history of the bay and surrounding area. He was a descendant of the original family who settled the area. He told the story about the beginnings of a fish boil and what to expect once we all gathered outside around the cauldron.

I don’t remember how old he said he was,it didn’t matter.  What mattered was my son and I were able to have this memorable experience together–witnessing the amazing gift of a wise and talented story teller – way up north at the end of the Door County peninsula, at a campground—in a Yurt.

Now this unforgettable elder is part of our story.

Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, and challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds. Our storytelling ability, a uniquely ancient human trait, has been with us as long as we’ve been able to speak and listen. Not only do people love to tell stories, people love to hear stories!

I work at Carolina Assisted Living in Appleton, WI.  We have an exciting opportunity to harvest the wisdom, the humor, and memories we hear every day. We live and work beside elders who have journeyed almost a full century on this planet. Through their stories, we connect with one another while giving our resident storytellers the gift of reconnecting   with us, their children, and grandchildren for generations to come.

We are preserving stories in audio, video, and written form to cherish these precious moments!

“The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.” – Dalai Lama

Learn more about legacy collection and the Tiny Stories project!     Watch and listen to this 50 second Tiny Story gift from Nancy Youngans, who tells us about her trip to Verona Italy, and what she learned.

About the author:  Eileen English is the administrator at Carolina Assisted Living in Appleton Wisconsin.  (Carolina is part of the Compass Senior Living family)

Eileen  has worked with elders for more than 40 years and feels her work is a passion, not a job. She was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and later became a Coast Guard wife – eileen-wilsonwhich took her all over the country. She has lived in many states but is happy to now be in Wisconsin near two of her grandchildren. In her free time, Eileen enjoys being outside hiking, kayaking and camping, and spending time with her two sons and three grandchildren.

The power of storytelling to connect us all!

In 2006, I was working as an administrator in an Assisted Living community while simultaneously working on my Masters degree. I had finished all of my class credits, and in order to complete the degree I had to write a thesis. This seemed a daunting requirement, and I had no ideas for a topic let alone how to even begin. I found myself floundering and wondering if I would ever finish the degree.

Then one day from my office, I overheard a 98 year old talking about what it was like when he was a boy working on their family farm. I was captivated by his stories that day as he recalled things I could have never known since I was 65 years younger than him! As one of humans’ most basic and effective forms of communication, storytelling connects us all, and I certainly made a connection that day.

With little more than the beginning of an idea, I began to research storytelling and oral history in hopes of finding a suitable thesis topic. During this research, I came across the quote that would not only help me complete the thesis, but from that moment on filled me with the passion to preserve the stories of elders everywhere. The quote is attributed to an African Proverb:

“Every time an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.”

For reasons obvious to anyone who works in our industry, this quote resonates deeply. We are surrounded by elders every day, all with wonderful stories and recollections of their past that they so willingly share. I began to think that if we somehow saved those stories, we could save their library!

My dreaded thesis ended up being one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. I spent hours interviewing and recording one special elder: my grandmother, Irene Hosteter, who raised seven children on little more than faith. Together, we saved her library for those 7 children, who have grown to also include 15 grandchildren, 33 great grandchildren, and 2 great-great grandchildren!

Yes, the thesis project was big, but what I learned along the way is that preserving the wisdom and stories (their legacy!) of our elders is easy!

  • All it takes is a recording device (found on most smart phones these days)
  • a willing storyteller
  • an engaged listener
  • and a little bit of time.

That’s when the magic of the story takes over, connecting the storyteller and listener, allowing both to find aspects of themselves in each other while preserving the storyteller’s legacy forever.

Grammie died a few years ago at the age of 95, but her legacy remains with us. We can still listen to her stories, in her voice, anytime. As the holiday season approaches and families gather, consider sitting down with one of your cherished family members, start the recorder, and ask them to “tell me about that time when….”

You will have created a priceless keepsake.

Below is one of Grammie’s stories.  She would be honored if you decide to create one of your own!  Help us save the libraries and preserve the legacy of all elders!

About our guest Author:  Carrie Gallahan, Director of Operations – Midwest Region, Compass Senior Living

carrie-headshotCarrie lives in Peru Indiana.   She is the founder of  Saving Libraries, and she has partnered with Compass Senior Living to create a signature program entitled Tiny Stories, which is a legacy collection of elder stories  in print, recorded and video formats.  Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, and challenge. They imprint a picture on our minds. Not only do people love to tell stories, people love to hear stories!