How to Animate a Roomful of Strangers

by Kareen King on June 29, 2015

Emilou with her Airport Friends - Photo by Kareen King, Founder of The Golden Experience® Emilou with her Airport Friends – Photo by Kareen King, Founder of The Golden Experience®

So, what happens when you add water to a garden of human beings? This metaphor was introduced to me via Michael Verde, the compassionate genius behind Memory Bridge, an organization whose mission is to seek “people who share our dedication to ending the social isolation of people with dementia through learning how to be with them in emotionally and spiritually sustaining ways.” In short, it’s about building bridges of friendship with people who live with dementia. Visit for more information.

I was invited back to the Memory Bridge Retreat to present the story of Emilou in concert and to facilitate a rhythm experience with a large group of elders and their buddies. I also brought my Emilou puppet along to show how even breathing life into an inanimate object has enlivened and continues to enliven so many individuals.

One of the highlights of my two days with some of the brightest and most compassionate individuals in the field of aging services occurred at the retirement community where we had about an hour with our buddies. To see how this played out with me and my buddy last year, read the memoir, “How I Met My Sunshine” by clicking

This year, however, I wasn’t assigned a buddy because of my brief stay. So, first thing I did was ask if “Lily” was still “with us.” I was thrilled to learn that she was and was told where I would find her. Minutes later I located her in a dining room, seated in a wheelchair at a table with her half eaten breakfast before her. She was alone at her table. Two other ladies were also in the room, each isolated from the others and seated in slumped positions.

I greeted Lily and was received warmly. I then invited her to come to the piano with me for some music. She accepted my invitation with a smile. Soon I was singing standards such as “Mairzy Doats” and “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” Lily was delighted. I soon realized, however, that the woman seated with her back toward us, just a few feet away, was left out. I left my piano bench and invited her to join us. A staff person then assisted her and she began clapping and singing immediately. As the music continued, several Memory Bridge participants and their buddies entered the room, one pair at a time. One participant asked if I knew “The Tennessee Waltz.” I began playing and witnessed her sing and waltz with her buddy. The miracle that occurred before me was reminiscent of the 1990 film, “Awakenings” (click for a moving scene with Robert De Niro and his dancing partner).

What happened in a few short minutes was what Michael Verde described as the doing that follows being, and that “who we are animates what we do.” What transpired in that lonely dining room was animation that occurred when a handful of loving human beings added water into the lives of those who were experiencing isolation that occurs with dementia. Our experience at Memory Bridge was not about learning techniques, but about developing the skill of letting go of the attachment to technique as preeminent. It was all about the skill of attention combined with focused love.

After leaving the Retreat, I was transported to the Indianapolis Airport where I soon learned my flight was delayed. Those seated around me immediately expressed concern about missing their connecting flight. I took the opportunity to introduce Emilou to my fellow passengers. What followed was amazing. An inanimate object, animated by a human being, animated a room full of strangers. Soon, people were leaving their seats and taking pictures and videos of Emilou. They turned their attention from themselves to this life-giving force in the center of the room and a host of people were soon connected and smiling. Several thanked me later for helping the time go by faster. It was amazing.

I could go on about all the beautiful moments I’ve experienced over the last few weeks during my weekly creative engagement gatherings, but I think I’ll instead leave  you with the words spoken from a 95-year-old lady with dementia who becomes animated each time I enter her space with love and music. Not yet recuperated from the Retreat and the jet lag, I managed to fight through the fatigue to give my best at the end of a long day. In spite of my smile, hugs, and singing at the top of my lungs, she demonstrated both her perception and appreciation articulately with her words, “I know you’re tired, but you are helping me so.”


Lone Coyote - Photo by Kareen King, Founder of The Golden Experience® Lone Coyote – Photo by Kareen King

The above photo depicts for me the essence of loneliness. I spotted him out in a field in the rain.

It’s my intention to bridge the gap between loneliness and friendship through creative engagement combined with love and belonging. Last week, I used Wizard of Oz topics, including the brain, as conversation starters. Amazingly, no matter how advanced the person’s dementia, each individual had a quick response to my invitation to say something about their brain. I have constructed the following poem out of their comments:

My Brain
My brain
Doesn’t have both oars
Got rusty
Is too small
Is slow
Is pretty good, but slower now that I’m older
Is soft
Is non-existent

My brain
Is not that whippy
Is retired
Is on vacation
Works overtime
Is blank
Is still working good
Is dancing

My brain
Is still going
Is smart
Is powerful
Does a pretty good job
Is tired
Is not too great
Is revved up and doesn’t know where to go
Is full of information
Is thoughtless
Has kept me going for 88 years

My brain
Is full of joy
Escapes me when I want to think of something special
Is sometimes very good
Is always busy
Has good memory for my age – 95 ½
Is stuck on the wind and gone
Is weary
Is sometimes pretty dormant
Still works

Speaking of brain, I spend time each week with a small group of individuals with advanced dementia symptoms. They are not able to carry on verbal conversations with me, other than short phrases. So, my means of connecting with them are through music, photography, eye contact, touch, and saying their names. Upon a recent arrival, I was introduced to a resident who was in the process of moving in to her new “home.” Her two daughters stood behind her.

Within minutes, the staff ushered her to a chair next to a darling 95-year-old woman whose enthusiastic response to our time together is incredibly endearing. I opened our time together with “Mairzy Doats,” a nonsensical song from their era and which has become our opening ritual. The new resident immediately sang with fluency, clapping her hands and clasping the hands of the lady seated next to her as they swayed to the rhythm. I could barely contain my emotion when I saw the two daughters weep together in the background as they observed their mother’s “awakening.” The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as I imagined much of their anxiety surrounding the letting go of their mother to the hands of others, dissipated in those 30 minutes we had together. It was hard to maintain my composure as I imagined what it would be like to be in a similar position with my mother and sisters.

Oliver Sacks, best-selling author and neurologist, wrote that “it is the inner life of music which can still make contact with their inner lives which can awaken the hidden, seemingly extinguished soul; and evoke a wholly personal response of memory, associations, feelings, images, a return of thought and sensibility, an answering identity.” Genuine love and caring makes it even richer.

In the meantime, for a great resource on how to generate brain-engaging moments, I recommend my book, “Engage! 28 Creative Enrichment Experiences for Older Adults,” available by clicking: 

I also offer educational concerts and creative engagement training for staff as well as creative engagement Experiences for older adult communities.

Am also pleased to announce that I’ve been invited to return to The Memory Bridge Training Retreat in Bloomington, Indiana in June to share a concert. Memory Bridge devotes itself to helping people build bridges of friendship with people who live with dementia.  I am also in the process of scheduling several creative engagement training experiences over the next few months.

Love and best wishes to you as you engage the brains and hearts of those you serve,


“I’m lucky because up till now my brain has kept me on an even keel. I don’t go to the edge of cliffs or swim in the deep sea,” – an 82-year-old Irishman


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