Kansas City Public Library’s Dementia-Friendly Programming

‘Keeping Culture and Fun Alive’

The con in quaint River City was beginning to work. Robert Preston, as roguish professor Harold Hill, had sung a few early numbers and won over the school board and mayor’s wife when, suddenly . . .

The screen in the lower-floor auditorium at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch went dark, and the strains of Dixieland jazz filtered in. A Sunday afternoon showing of The Music Man had hit intermission. Through the doors marched trumpeters, trombonists and the rest of the nine-man Dirty Force Brass Band, delighting an audience of 60 or so people who swayed, clapped or lit up smiles as they took in the spectacle.

This was no ordinary movie matinee. Part of the Library’s Movies and Memories series, it was tailored to people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia and to their family, friends and caregivers. “It’s about providing an outing for folks who sometimes feel isolated or are stuck at home and unable to do the things they enjoy,” says Plaza Branch Director April Roy.

There are few, if any, programs like it in the country.

Working with an assortment of partners including the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, the Library has made dementia-friendly events a staple of its public programming over the past two years. In addition to the Movies and Memories series, which began late in 2016 and features film screenings and other activities and offerings roughly every other month, KCPL hosts monthly Memory Café gatherings with interactive presentations “focused on keeping culture and fun alive for those who are living with dementia and their care partners.”

Launched in March, the cafés are part of a nationwide initiative. Both they and the movie series are held at the Library’s Plaza Branch, and offer what Katherine Rivard of the Mid-America chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association says are vital opportunities for social engagement.

“It has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia, but also is important once you have the disease,” says Rivard, the chapter’s manager of community outreach and volunteer engagement. “Scientifically, I don’t think we know yet why that is. We just know it correlates with a kind of better day-to-day experience with the disease.

“It can be art. It can be conversation. Just being there, doing an activity and being with others . . . you’ll do better, longer, if you stay engaged with people.”

The Alzheimer’s Association has been working to create more dementia-friendly communities nationwide. The need, unfortunately, is rising. An estimated 5.7 million Americans now are living with Alzheimer’s, including some 50,000 in the greater Kansas City area. The latter are looked after by about 200,000 caregivers.

The Mid-America chapter was reaching out to banks, hospitals, the zoo, symphony and other local institutions and organizations when, at one point, it connected with author and dementia advocate Deborah Shouse and her partner, Ron Zoglin. Shouse, in turn, approached the Library with a proposal for the Movies and Memories series.

The program offers a multisensory experience: movies or film clips with built-in breaks for activities or discussion, live music and the smell and taste of fresh-popped popcorn. You’ll hear no movie theater shushing — expectations of quiet are relaxed — and there are plenty of volunteers to offer directions, answer questions, or guide conversations. It’s all free. It’s all family friendly.

The first event featured a screening of The Red Balloon, the acclaimed, nearly wordless comedy-drama about a young boy in Paris who discovers a stray balloon with a life of its own. It drew an audience of 95 in November 2016. A Valentine’s Day-themed program featured a series of romantic shorts and ballroom dancing demonstration. An Oscar-themed program this past February offered three Academy Award-winning or nominated shorts and live music from the KC Boys Choir.

“One of the things that inspired me to start this — Ron and me both — was my own family’s movie experiences,” says Shouse, who wrote the book Connecting in the Land of Dementia. “My mom and dad loved to go to the movies and then, when my mom was living with dementia and she couldn’t sit still through a whole movie, my dad stopped going . . . They missed out on this wonderful, engaging activity they shared together.”

After The Music Man in June, she says, “I got an email from a woman who brought her whole family. She said her mom and dad had seen (the stage version of) The Music Man at Starlight years ago, and they were laughing. They were humming. They were so excited to be seeing the movie.”

The KC Memory Cafés are held the third Tuesday morning of each month. They’ve featured visits from exotic animals from the Kansas City Zoo, an assortment of Kansas City Symphony instruments that attendees were invited to play and experts from the Overland Park Arboretum and Ruiz Seed Library, who examined different plant varieties and sent each attendee home with cup of newly seeded marigolds.

Movies and Memories events are drawing an average of 65 people, the cafés a little more than 40 a month. Roy, Shouse and Zoglin are spotlighting the movie series in a presentation at the Missouri Library Association’s annual conference in Columbia in October, offering guidance on how to replicate it.

“I think it’s something that could catch on,” Roy says.

“The library’s a safe space for so many people. It’s a comfortable space. I think it’s a perfect fit.”

–Steve Wieberg

About The Author: Contributing Writer

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