Connecting With Mary, who has dementia

Connecting With Mary, who has dementia

living in dementia care center.

Silently… I gathered the puzzles together; on my drive home, Mary’s video played over and over and the tears rolled down.


As I laid a 6 piece puzzle for dementia in front of Mary, I asked if she wanted to work on it. She nodded… yes.
jigsawpuzzles, memory puzzles, large piece puzzles, puzzles for dementia, norman rockwell puzzles, the saturday evening post puzzlesSlowly, I separated the 6 piece puzzle, laying pieces within her reach.She eagerly picked up one piece, then another, turning and closely observing, each knob.

Mary knew the pieces went together, but how?

She held the pieces in her hands, adjusting each knob on it’s edge, then flat, intensely, testing each opening.

After a bit, I tapped on the table saying it would be easier here and the pieces will stay together.

She obediently put the pieces on the table and tried earnestly to find two that went together.

I didn’t rush her; I was pulled into her time.

Discovering a piece Mary liked, she twisted and turned it, measuring each knob and her search began.

Her fingers moved slowly over the pieces, feeling their curves before they made their way into the puzzle.

Mary like many other dementia patients, tried to force pieces into place. Sometimes she would have the right piece, but could not make it fit because it was on top of another, this is common.

When this happened, I would slowly guide the piece into place, saying, it fits perfect. When possible I gently guided with one finger… just a little nudge and it falls into place, showing her, you don’t have to force it.

When she completed a puzzle… You did a good job Mary!

And she pointed for another puzzle.

As Mary started her 2nd puzzle, I moved across the table to observe her from a distance.

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Mary’s Ritual

She took the puzzle apart, laid the pieces around, just as I did and then began her inspection.

Picking up one piece, analyzing every curve, randomly pick up another, testing the knobs in open areas searching for that right fit.

This process was done in her hands not on the table. I was thinking later, perhaps she needed to get the pieces closer to see them clearly OR maybe she just wanted to, only Mary knows.

She was extremely focused, not hurried, when she felt the pieces in her hands were correct, she would put them into the pieces on the table.

Every once in a while she looked up at me, not saying anything, but her eyes told me, she wanted my help and her hands were in a holding pattern on the puzzle.

Each time the piece(s) were correct, sometimes the angle was off, or one piece was on top of another and she could not get it to fit, but she was never frustrated or anxious.

Each time Mary completed a puzzle, good job, it is perfect. You are great with puzzles!

Immediately, she reached for another puzzle, and we would go through the process again.

It took Mary about 7-10 minutes to put the first 6 piece puzzle together. I don’t know if she was faster at the end of our session, but her touch became softer and smoother placing the chunky pieces down and into place.

I could actually see a visual change in her hands while placing pieces down and definitely more relaxed.

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Mary was amazing!

On automatic, intense, full concentration, never taking her eyes off the puzzle or pieces… except, when she looked up at me.

After she completed all of the different 6 piece puzzles, I had with me (7), I asked if she had a favorite puzzle.

Not responding right away, I thought perhaps she didn’t understand or hear me, THEN, she picked one up and said “this one”. (Title: Going Out)

I had been with Mary an hour, heard nothing, no facial expression, her eyes were her voice. It was amazing to me, hearing her voice and making her choice.

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Recap of Mary’s unique way

Mary would discover two pieces that went together, by putting them together in her hands, then, laid them down on the table. Find two more pieces, put those together in her hands; then tried to maneuver those two pieces (together) into the puzzle on the table.

This is rather difficult.

Mary usually had the right pieces and knew where to put them, and if she couldn’t put them into place, she would look up, this was my cue.

After several puzzles it appeared Mary was studying the picture more, by gliding her finger on the top surface of the knobs, rather than on the edge.

She would have continued all day, non stop, even though she was silent, expressing only by her actions and pointing, wanting to do more.

She was experiencing success and I was in awe, observing her amazing way of looking and working with the puzzles.

I was impressed with Mary’s intense focus, nothing distracted her; she was enjoying what she was doing, even though she was silent.

Bingo was being played in the same room, I kept asking if she wanted to stop and play bingo. She shook her head no and pointed to another puzzle.

Doctors say that old habits are buried in our memories, this is one reason puzzles are beneficial exercises for Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients.

Mary’s favorite 6 piece puzzle “Going Out” by Norman Rockwell.

They Labeled her

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©Karen Miller