Ella Adams takes in a big breath—holds it in her lungs for a moment—and exhales very, very slowly. “You can do this when you’re mad,” she explains.
Ella, seven, and her sister Lily, nine, learned this breathing exercise at KIDZ in the Dementia Zone, a monthly class introducing elementary-age children to the subject of dementia, hosted throughout the academic year at Highline Place Memory Care center in Littleton. It’s one of many coping strategies, their mom Yen explains, for dealing with frustrations that arise when interacting with older people suffering from dementia.
“I unfortunately am meeting more and more people [with dementia] with young children,” says Jodi Cornman, founder of the KIDZ program and Highline Place Memory Care’s community relations director, pointing to the worldwide rise in dementia diagnoses. As many as 10 million people are being diagnosed each year, according to the World Health Organization—an unprecedented rate.
Yet last spring, when Cornman met nine-year-old twins whose dad had mid-to-late-stage dementia, she realized how few resources were available to help them understand and cope with parents’ or grandparents’ cognitive diseases.
Because dementia has no reliable treatments at the moment, learning to cope with its symptoms (memory loss and impaired judgment, for example) plays a large role in moving forward after a diagnosis, says Cornman. When she couldn’t find help for the twins, she teamed up with two women—an elementary school teacher and a spiritual care coordinator—to organize the KIDZ sessions and explain dementia in terms children can understand.
Using crafts, games, and journaling exercises, KIDZ creates a comfortable setting for kids to ask questions, learn coping strategies, and eventually practice interacting with dementia patients at Highline Place. Being among people with dementia “can be intimidating to a young child,” says Yen. But after Ella and Lily’s experience in the class “with other children in their age going through the dementia process, I think they’re more versatile in helping others.”
In framing lessons through games, “we’re giving [kids] information they’re not even realizing they’re getting,” says Cornman. “We have all kinds of different kids in there, and we want to reach all of their needs.”
More than anything, Cornman says, kids “need to know they’re loved, and [KIDZ] gives them a way to understand. … It’s just like the spouses, finding a way to feel loved and special still with someone with memory loss.”
KIDZ sessions run September through May. Contact Jodi Cornman, 303-703-3499, for dates and additional information.