Are You Afraid to Talk About Fear With Your Elders?

by Kareen King on October 31, 2015

Black Snake - Photo by Kareen King, founder of The Golden Experience

I took the above photo, assuming the black snake was dead. Had I known he was only playing possum because of his terror of me, I would never have gotten down on my hands and knees and inched my face so closely toward his to get this shot.

Of what are you terrified? Are you afraid to talk about the elephant in the room? Some people are afraid to open a can of worms by avoiding topics such as death and pain.  I find this ironic, especially in the field of long-term care.

I was particularly stirred the other day when I discovered a YouTube video on my Facebook feed. It was a staged cover of Beastie Boys song which has gone viral. The production is a marketing tool for an Assisted Living community which aims to convey its fun-loving atmosphere. Elders pretend they have to fight for their right to party by lip-syncing the rock and roll lyrics, drinking fake alcohol, and acting like rebellious teenagers. Of course it’s cute and funny, but it caricatures elders as one-dimensional and easily manipulated; and hypothetical caregivers as militant party poopers.

What the general public perceives about the very old who live in care communities is largely shaped by what goes viral via YouTube. Thankfully there are other examples which show another side of elders such as the video of Naomi Feil’s work with Gladys Wilson and the “Alive Inside” piece on Henry who comes to life while listening to iPod music.

The point I’m making is that while it’s helpful to redirect our clients’ attention through light-hearted and fun activities, it’s also important to tap into the stuff that’s brewing in their psyche and allow them to voice their most authentic fears, losses, and affections.

This past week, instead of facilitating an Experience on Halloween, I chose to create one on fear.  Research concludes that fear is one of the four basic emotions which include happy, sad, and anger/disgust. After our standard warm-up, followed by a few scary knock-knock jokes, I asked them to name their fears so we could compare their list with research. Their list included storms, death, heights, burglars, falling, having teeth pulled, “losing all my money,” becoming “senile,” losing family, mean dogs, and of course, rats, mice, spiders, and snakes.

Then it got deeper. Here’s what happened:

ME: O.k., so we’re going to create a haiku about fear. A haiku is a poem with three lines. The first and third have five syllables, and the second line has seven. Let’s come up with our first line. The line doesn’t have to have five words, but five syllables.

SHE#1: Drowning.

ME:  Drowning? How about we make that work for what fear does to us?  Our last line could end with, “I’m drowning in fear.” There. Five syllables! So, what are we afraid of? Let’s pick out something.

THEY: Imagination.

ME: Perfect. That’s another five syllables. So, what about our middle line? It needs seven syllables.

SHE#2: The water came up too fast.

ME: The water came up too fast?

SHE#1: My husband drowned in a pond.

ME: Oh, my goodness! I’m so sorry. Thank you for not being afraid to share that with us. That must have been a terrible thing for you.

(I walk toward SHE #1 and give her a hug)

SHE#1: Thanks. I needed that.

Fear Haiku


The water came up too fast

I’m drowning in fear

 After the Experience, one of my most loyal attendees waited for everyone to leave before he approached me.

HE: What about fear of falling off?  A cousin of mine fell off a cliff when he was in his early twenties. So I’ve been afraid of falling off.

ME: Well, I’ll add it to our list.

HE: You didn’t put your eye on me at the time, so I didn’t tell you till after.

In conclusion, I encourage you not to be afraid to address the deeper emotions of your clients. They are simply waiting for you to “put your eye on them,” give them a voice, then offer them a hug.

Happy Hallow’s Eve,


“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft


How to Transform a Dull Topic into a Dazzling Experience!

by Kareen King on September 29, 2015

The Cement Event - Photo by Kareen King The Cement Event – Photo by Kareen King

I love challenges. I especially love creating something amazing and relatable from an otherwise dull and seemingly irrelevant topic. I recently asked one of my favorite and dedicated groups of residents to think of such a topic. They chose cement. Two weeks later, I facilitated “The Cement Event.” In one magical hour we pantomimed tossing a cement-shaped ball to one another, exchanged stories, and built an imaginary concrete structure which is pictured above. We learned that Thomas Edison’s version of Portland cement was used to both build the original Yankee’s stadium as well as the single-pour concrete house, the latter which resulted in an epic fail.

We discussed the metaphorical aspects of cement. Think, for example, of the conversational possibilities with the following purposes and features of cement. Cement can mend broken objects by causing the fragmented parts to adhere to one another. Cement sets and hardens, binds and unites. Concrete is the result of cement uniting and binding an aggregate which is the mass of dissimilar materials such as sand, gravel, crushed stone, and slag. Slag, by the way, is a term used for something that is not worth a person’s time and effort, yet still draws him in. Nothing wasted! How cool is that???

I invited the participants to consider ourselves an aggregate. We come together to share a common experience, yet we are distinct from one another. I asked them to name our dissimilarities. Answers included our personalities, backgrounds, likes and dislikes, sizes, looks, attitudes, health conditions, and ancestries.

I also invited them to make metaphorical applications on how materials found in or produced by cement or concrete relate to them. Several thoughtful answers resulted including:

  • I am an archway. I help people get to tomorrow.
  • I am a cement fencepost. It just feels good.
  • I am a mountain top with flowers in the spring and colored leaves in the fall.
  • I am a pebble that sees beyond the horizon. I see the bigger picture.
  • I am a cement welcoming sign. I make others feel welcome.
  • I am solid as a rock. I do things the hard way.

As we concluded, I posed a question, fully expecting an answer such as friendship or love. What happened next was beyond my expectation. The conversation went like this:

ME: What binds us together?

HE: You.

ME: What is it about me that makes you say that?

THEY: You make us think about things differently. You make us think in ways that never occurred to us before.

ME: So I’m like a think catalyst?

He: Yes.

ME: So what happens within you as a result of thinking in new ways?

HE: It’s like you’re building a house with different colors, making it livable for all of us. It makes us happy.

The next week, a daughter of one of the regular attendees of my gatherings stopped me at lunch with the words, “This day is sacred. According to my mom, on the day of Kareen’s Kettle, we don’t do doctor’s appointments. We don’t plan anything that would interfere. If I want to visit she’ll say, ‘Can’t do it. It’s Kareen’s hour.’ She sings your praises. She loves the storytelling and the webs you’ve woven.”

I share these testimonials not to toot my own horn, but to open your eyes to the fact that our elders want more. They don’t just want to be entertained. They want to discover, grow, reminisce, express themselves, and feel loved. All they need is you!

So, now I shamelessly plug myself as a resource if you want some practical tools to create and facilitate these types of experiences. I not only recommend my book, Engage! 28 Creative Enrichment Experiences for Older Adults, but my creative engagement workshops. Email me to discuss what’s possible for a half-day or full-day training experience.

In the meantime, I leave you with these words that occurred at the end of my Cement Event:

ME: See what fun we had with the topic of cement?

HE: That wasn’t so “hard” after all.


The Beauty or Cruelty of a Name

August 31, 2015

The above photo was taken at the Chicago Airport while on the way home from presenting at the MidAmerica Institute on Aging. Though I’m sure the people behind the campaign depicted in the poster were well intended, I’ve pondered its message: “We’ve changed enough diapers to last a lifetime. We don’t want our kids doing […]

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How to Animate a Roomful of Strangers

June 29, 2015

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 […]

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What Individuals With Dementia Say About Their Brains

May 31, 2015

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 […]

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What Makes an Activity Engaging?

April 30, 2015

If you’re curious about what makes or doesn’t make an experience engaging, read the following true story: Many years ago in a land far away, I visited an Alzheimer’s/Dementia Assisted Living community designed to “give life” to all residents. I sat in on one of many activities of the day and observed “Mary,” a Life […]

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What Causes Pains and Aches to Disappear?

March 28, 2015

It’s been awhile since my last blog post because I took a month off for some personal time.  I found that allowing extra space to step away from my “normal” routine was very useful. It gave me pause to reconsider “normal.” What I needed to see was that my brain needs more breathing room to […]

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The Benefit of Nonsense in Creative Engagement for Older Adults

January 31, 2015

Want to know how to both provide meaningful and engaging activities for your residents while gathering information on what interests them? You are likely to provide more person-centered care when you create an environment that invites self expression. This is what I’ve discovered over the past few years during my work as a Creative Engagement […]

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A Great Resource on Creative Engagement for Older Adults! (“Engage! 28 Creative Enrichment Experiences for Older Adults” by Kareen King)

December 5, 2014

  This just in! I am pleased to announce my new book, an intense labor of love, “Engage! 28 Creative Enrichment Experiences for Older Adults,” available online at ArtAge Publications by clicking What it is:  A simple, step-by-step workbook to help you lead stimulating, creative programs How it works:  Uses thematic lesson plans with storytelling, […]

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When You Need Some Encouragement to Keep On Going

November 30, 2014

Some people think that a nursing home is a place where people are dumped by those who don’t care, to be left to stagnate on a “nowhere train” until they die. Perhaps that’s true in rare cases. But not in the retirement communities I serve. I see people who want to live, love, and learn, […]

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