Take Heart!

Posted on July 22, 2017

Nine lifestyle changes may reduce risk of dementia

“Nine lifestyle changes can reduce dementia risk,” BBC News reports. A major review by The Lancet has identified nine potentially modifiable risk factors linked to dementia.

The third change on the list is Eat a healthy balanced diet with a high proportion of oily fish, fruit, vegetables, unrefined cereals and olive oil, and low levels of red meat and sugar.

This fall we will introduce a recipe book of that speaks that issue.  Celebrated Chefs including Jacques Pépin, Madison Cowan, Caprial Pence and our own Thierry Rautureau are contributing recipes both delicious and healthy to the inaugural booklet. Each recipe will be paired with a stunning painting of the main ingredient, created by a person living with dementia.  Even better, net proceeds will support our free exhibits and programs working to enrich lives and expand public understanding of the disease and the people who live with it.

Now to find a zucchini recipe for Mom’s wonderful version.

Here’s the list

  1. Keep physically active – for at least 30 minutes, five times a week. You’ll need to be active enough to raise your heart rate and get a bit out of breath. You could walk, cycle, swim or join an exercise or dance group. Regular physical exercise in middle-aged or older adults reduces the risk of developing dementia. It’s also good for your heart and mental wellbeing. Exercise like this brings health benefits even if you’re not losing weight.
  2. Don’t smoke – if you already do smoke, try to stop. By smoking you are at a greater risk of developing dementia and harming your lungs, heart and circulation. If you want to stop smoking, talk to your GP. They can provide help and advice about quitting, and can refer you to an NHS Stop Smoking Service.
  3. Eat a healthy balanced diet – A healthy diet has a high proportion of oily fish, fruit, vegetables, unrefined cereals and olive oil, and low levels of red meat and sugar. Such a diet will help reduce your risk of dementia and heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Try to cut down on saturated fat (eg cakes, biscuits, most cheeses) and limit sugary treats. Keep an eye on your salt intake too, because salt raises your blood pressure and risk of stroke. Read food labels to see what’s in them and seek out healthier options.
  4. Keep your alcohol within recommended limits – and remember that these limits changed in 2016. They are now a maximum of 14 units each week for men and women, spread over 3 or more days. This is the same as four or five large glasses of wine, or seven pints of beer or lager with a lower alcohol content. Regularly exceeding these weekly limits increases your dementia risk. If you find yourself struggling to cut down what you drink, talk to your GP about what support is available.
  5. Take control of your health – If you’re invited for a regular mid-life health check at the doctor’s, be sure to go. It’s like an ‘MOT’ for your body and will include a check of your blood pressure, weight and maybe cholesterol level. These are linked to dementia and conditions that are strong risk factors for dementia (heart disease, stroke and diabetes). If you’re already living with one of these long-term conditions, follow professional advice about medicines and lifestyle. If you feel that you might be getting depressed, seek treatment early.
  6. Keep to a healthy weight this will reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease – and hence probably of dementia. A good place to start is to follow the advice on exercise and diet.  Keep a diary of your food intake and exercise for each day, and remember that alcohol contains hidden calories. The NHS Live Well website has lots of practical tips. Or you could join a local weight loss group. If you’ve tried to make changes without success, your GP can also offer advice.
  7. Give your brain a daily workoutThis could be reading, doing puzzles, word searches or crosswords, playing cards or learning something new – maybe another language. If you can keep your mind active you are likely to reduce your risk of dementia. There is a bit less evidence, but keeping socially engaged and having a good social network may also reduce your dementia risk. Visit people or have them visit you, join a club or volunteer.
  8. Maintain good hearingMid-life hearing loss – responsible for 9% of the risk
  9. Stay socially engagedBrain health experts are emphasizing the importance of staying socially engaged as studies show this is a potent risk factor for brain health. Social activities may include picking up a new hobby, volunteering at a local shelter, or sharing activities and experiences with friends and loved ones. No matter what you choose, pursuing social activities that are meaningful to you is key.

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Art provides a window

Posted on July 12, 2017

I recently spoke with John Zeisel, President of the I’m Still Here Foundation – and creator of the innovative MOMA Alzheimer’s Project—Making Art Accessible to People with Dementia   I referred to mother’s inability to remember painting and her disinterest in the paintings themselves.   “I think she absolutely remembers,” he assured me and urged me to try a different approach.  “Ask her what she thought the artist who painted them might have been thinking.”   I tried this out yesterday and, to my surprise, she responded.

“Well, that’s me,” she said, pointing to the larger image on the left.  “Such a beautiful woman,” she said sarcastically (self-deprecation being default mode for the McFees.)  I asked her about the smaller image on the right and—to my surprise and delight—she said it was me (I wasn’t present for the painting session but who knows?)   She added, “You are a lovely young woman.”  (Thanks, Mom!)   It seems to prove Zeisel’s point—there is a lot more going on inside there than we realize and art is a way to unlock it.

I also played for her the video about her art,  She thoroughly enjoyed the film and loved the paintings (though still insisting she didn’t paint them.)  She did, however, keep holding her hand in front of her image on the screen, wincing at she called her ugly, old face.  Old habits die hard… but arguably quite wrong as this photo—taken on her 94th birthday—will attest.



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Happy 4th

Posted on July 4, 2017

Happy Independence Day!

This is a photo of Mom at 93 on July 4th in one of her favorite places on earth – on board a ferry on its way to the home she and Dad built on Whidbey Island.  Couldn’t be happier.


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Where Have You Been?

Posted on June 27, 2017


You just never know…if there is one thing I can rely upon, it’s that Mom will not remember anything I say…except once last summer.  I called her after a long day spent toiling in the garden.  It was a wonderful conversation.   She was totally engaged—laughing, asking questions, not pulling away as she so often does…in retreat  to the safety of her private thoughts.  After about 20 minutes—which is a very long conversation for us—I told her I would see her the next day.  She told me not to work too hard and we said good-bye.

The next day, I arrived at Horizon House just after lunch for Mom’s painting class.  The nurses were thrilled to see me.  “ Thank God you’re here.  She has been looking for you since 7:30 this morning.”

Amazing!  She had been searching for me in other residents’ rooms, making phone calls (those must have been very interesting conversations) and was very, very worried.   When  I walked into her room, she was sitting by the phone looking at a list of phone numbers.  She  took one look at me and heaved a huge sigh of relief, saying, “Oh, thank goodness.   I have been looking for you everywhere.”

I’m not quite sure what triggered this.  I’d like to think that it was because I was so wildly entertaining the night before but whatever it was, something connected on a very deep level.   I’ve taken care not to make similar promises on the off chance that she might remember but so far it hasn’t happened again.

Pretty wonderful though.

Unlike today.  A virus has been running through Assisted Living and she has been under the weather.  No solid food for two days.

She was very confused.  I’m not sure if she knew who I was but she was absolutely certain that several people had been in her room this morning—including her brother and my father—both long deceased.  She was definitely remembering something that happened more than 10 years ago.   I kept asking questions and tried, unsuccessfully,  to follow her narrative.  We hugged a lot.  At one point she made a very unusual announcement.

“I think I’m going to get married again.”

“Really?” I said.  “Who are you going to marry?”

“The same person,” she grinned, meaning Dad.  Whatever she and Dad had discussed in the morning, it certainly was leaving a lasting impression.

She will no doubt return to normal (by which I mean her normal) soon but I suspect she’d rather stay in the past with Dad.

Me?   I’ll be glad to have her back.




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A Question of Age

Posted on June 20, 2017

For four years, I wrote about every visit I made to Mom.  This is from 2/4/2015

Mother was very funny yesterday.  We sat at her lunch table and talked about age.

I’m not that old, she declared.

How old are you? I asked.

Oh, about 26.

Do you know how old I am? I responded.

Well, I’ll be nice.  20.

My response—considerably older than that—will not be quoted here.

Well, what does that make me? She asked.

You will be 96 in March.

Oh, that can’t be true.  I don’t feel that old. 

She was pretty clear on that point.

We compromised.  She is 30 and I am 20.

Works for her…works for me.

Here is her painting of a yellow fan.

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Tuesdays with Mom

Posted on June 13, 2017

Why on earth did it take me so long to start recording my conversations with Mom.  They are so much more interesting in what I can remember.  Here is an account from February 5, 2013.  Mom was 94 and had been painting for 5 years.

I love Tuesdays.   This is the day Mom paints.

We have a routine.  I arrive at her door with the usual greeting.  “Hi Mom, it’s your daughter Marilyn.”  (Just so she doesn’t have to guess.)  She tells me I look lovely – which is always nice to hear.  I tell her that I thought I might beat her at Scrabble… Our big joke.  She will look at me pityingly, “Well, I wouldn’t want to make you cry.”  She laughs and sits, eager for the game (Did I mention she is competitive?) and we begin.   She is surprisingly good for someone who has to ask me if dog is a word.  But then her old strategies kick in and she spells “quiet” on the triple for 59 points.  She’s quite wily actually, usually scoring in the mid to high 200’s. Then we take a walk.  She looks out over the horizon delighting in everything she sees except for the Roosevelt Hotel.  “Roosevelt,” she sniffs.  “we didn’t like him.”  She plays the piano – as always, Silent Night and Polly Waddle Doodle.

This is our warm-up for the afternoon ahead.  We stroll to the painting area where the paintings from last week are displayed.  Mother’s is immediately apparent; she has her own distinctive style.

I take a photo of the model on the table and she joins the others.

“What am I doing here?”

“You’re going to paint.”

Wrinkling her nose, “I don’t do this.”

“You’d be surprised.  You’re really good.  Everyone thinks so.”

“They’re crazy!”

At this point, it’s best if I leave the room. Without me to argue with, she waits patiently for paint to be put before her.  As she lifts the brush, she begins to hum and she’s off – sometimes painting what she sees on the table, sometimes what is in her mind’s eye.

Can’t wait to see what she paints…

And here it is…Tulips.

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Muscle Memory

Posted on June 6, 2017

Mom loved to play the piano.

She played for holiday gatherings, birthdays, and neighborhood events.  She gamely tried to teach my older sisters and brother, with my sister Jeanne her only success. The best I managed was to pick out the first few bars of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen with my right hand.  She gave up after that until my younger brother Don showed not only interest but talent.  What a pleasure that must have been – for both of them.

But mainly she just loved the sheer thrill of it and at the end of a long, long day she would go to the piano and play.

She had a vast repertoire.  Some she knew by heart and some by sight which she played from the many song books that filled the piano bench.

Over time, she remembered fewer songs and while she could still read music, she preferred her own special medley.  It began with Silent Night and then, at precisely the same moment each time, morphed into Polly Waddle Doodle.




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The Mind Diet

Posted on May 30, 2017

Our speaker series began on May 23rd with Michael Reagan and he was, by turns charming, insightful, honest and moving.   Kind of a wonderful reminder that dementia is not a Republican or Democratic issue.  It’s a very human issue that affects us all.  It was heartening and for many of us in this very blue city, surprising, to realize that when it comes to Alzheimer’s and dementia, we are all on the same page.

In June we turn to food, with Chef Madison Cowan and Seattle’s own Chef Thierry Rauturau (Loulay Kitchen and Bar, Luc and the legendary Rover’s).  For the foodies out there, Chef Cowan is the first ever Grand Champion of Food Network’s Chopped, a passionate champion for the Alzheimer’s Association and pioneering advocate for the Mind Diet and the power of healthy eating to slow the advance of cognitive decline.

Photo of Chef Madison taken at Ocean Grill in NYC

We will hear from both on June 14th.   Come to the VIP Chefs Reception and there will be cake!

Be there or be square.

Tickets at www.theartofalzheimer’

And as long as we’re talking about food, here is an extraordinary painting of apples by Suzanne Gardon.


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Consider adopting a mother

Posted on May 16, 2017

Mom, Kathleen, Flora, Phyllis & Gloria

If your mother is no longer with you—or far away—consider the women in a supported living facility who find themselves far away from their children.  You may be able to help one another…

What follows was written in 2015 a few months after Mom’s death. 

When I find myself stressed from work—beset by too many deadlines, too many emails all pressing for an immediate response—I head to Supported Living to visit my adopted mothers.

The moment I arrive, time shifts.  Stress disappears.  There is only the moment and I surrender to each restful, rewarding minute.

Their small community is gathering in the dining room, ready for lunch.  I am greeted with smiles.

I greet them each by name and the smiles get bigger.

First Evelyn, also known as the duchess.  She is approaching her 104th birthday and is still completely animated and engaged with life. I’m becoming something of a project for Evelyn.  “A little makeup wouldn’t hurt,” she advises.  “And some jewelry…and a little more blush.”  I comply and she is pleased…so much better.”  In return I treated her to a facial, her first in 104 years.  She loved it. “I have never been so pampered.”  About time.

Next to her is Ruby, she of the sardonic southern drawl.  She and Evelyn consider my cookies to be the key to a long life.  “Get in the kitchen and start cooking!” commands Ruby.

Evelyn and Ruby

I begin with gentle neck massages—always asking permission.  (Ruby hates them.)

“Ciao, Bella!” I call to Flora and give her a quick kiss on the forehead.

“Heaven has arrived,” beams Jane.   “You have such happy hands.”

“Do you tuck your wings in a handkerchief when you’re not here?” asks Gloria as she snuggles contentedly into her chair. (Hands down the best compliment I have ever received.)

“You have good hands. Are you a professional?” asks Sue.  “Thank you.”

I greet Joyce and her companion, Gus, a little stuffed animal.  “Woof,” I say.  “Gus is looking very happy today.”  Joyce agrees, pleased.

I give Phyllis a head hug.   In all the years I have known her, I have never heard her voice in conversation—instead coos and murmurs.  But when we sing, her voice is loud and clear and she sways to the music and laughs.

And around the table I go, their happiness increased by the smiles on each other’s faces,

What wonderful women they are.   In the company of such joy, who wouldn’t feel rested and revitalized?

After an hour I am recharged and calm—ready for the head winds of a busy life and thankful for the safe harbor of my mothers in Supported Living.

Back to the present.  Last Monday I was at Supported Living.  Gloria, Jane, Sue and Joyce are still with us but Kathleen has moved to the remotes of Memory Care and Evelyn, Ruby and Flora have passed.  New faces have taken their place and, I am happy to say, all are eager for neck massages.

And so it goes.

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The doll

Posted on May 9, 2017

December 2013

Growing up my mother had a favorite doll—her constant companion.  Here she is in 1920 at the age of one, with her doll and her grandfather Malcolm McFee.

For years it lay cushioned in a cedar chest.  Occasionally my sisters and I would be allowed to take it out and then, just as quickly, return it to safety.

There it lay until Mom and Dad moved into Supported Living.   And suddenly it emerged—sitting on the top of the bookshelf.

She didn’t play with it—certainly not.  As she once told me when she saw a neighbor walk by holding a doll, “If I ever get like that, just shoot me.”

But when Dad died, she had a lot of time to fill.  In the long evenings in her small apartment, she would sit surrounded by memories—photographs of Dad, her children, her siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  Plus piles of books and magazines (mostly filched, I fear, from the downstairs library and other people’s mail boxes), all sorts of jewelry and odd trinkets, a few stuffed animals…and the doll.

Every night she would “fiddle about.”  The next day everything would have been rearranged—photos moved, necklaces draped on paintings and furniture, pictures cut out of the steadily growing piles of books and magazines (alas, more stealthy late night raids) and taped to the walls, stuffed animals in new groupings…and the doll.  Sometimes with socks on its legs to “keep it warm.”  Sometimes wrapped in a blanket, sometimes keeping company with the stuffed animals. Some days eyes open; other days closed.  Every day a new tableau.

I was so charmed by this that I began taking photos. This went on for years—the doll again her best friend and constant companion.

“Poor little fellow,” she would say as she cradled it in her arms.

Now I have the doll.  So far it’s just sitting on a shelf but who knows.   If I ever start playing with it, I hope there is someone there to take pictures.


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