The Beauty or Cruelty of a Name

by Kareen King on August 31, 2015

Photo by Kareen King Photo by Kareen King

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 the same for us.” Could it, and others like it, possibly contribute to the prevailing problem of ageism that plagues our society and shames our elders?

My husband and I recently saw the movie, The Gift, a suspense thriller that dramatizes how the long-term effects of childhood bullying play out in a man nicknamed “Gordo the Weirdo.” It was a dramatic reminder of how some people unwittingly succumb to what becomes an unsolicited and harmful legacy dished out by the thoughtless cruelty of others. Let me share how this played out in my own life. My mother often reminds me that my name was the result of her taking a common name, Kari, and reshaping it into something unique and beautiful, Kareen. She had no way of knowing my beautiful name would be misspelled and mispronounced throughout my life. Nor would she anticipate that in my formative years, others would either mock my name or call me unwanted nicknames such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. My only saving grace was that the boy who deemed me “Kareem,” was also the one who terrorized another classmate with the nickname “Hurricane Ginger,” causing all her school papers to flail from her desktop to the floor each time he passed her by. Nonetheless, I’ve had difficulty saying my name with confidence. Even worse, for years I accepted the lie that I was less than.

Fortunately, my pain has served as ammunition for me to know and value the names of others. I take great effort in pronouncing and spelling names correctly, in memorizing names, and in addressing individuals by name, particularly the elders I serve. Dale Carnegie said, “A man’s name to him is the sweetest and most important sound in the English language.”

Last week my name journey came full circle when I was challenged by one of my public speaking students to contact the man who, as a boy, called me Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I accepted the challenge, sent him a Facebook message, and received a response later that evening. He wrote, “First, let me apologize for my childish 6th grade behavior. Your name, then and now, is beautiful.” We’ve since become Facebook friends and have discovered we share many commonalities.

Unfortunately, many of our elders have accepted the lie that they are without value. I had the pleasure of presenting an educational concert and two creative engagement workshops (see as part of a specialty tract on Therapeutic Value of Arts and Creativity at the MidAmerica Institute on Aging where Dan Buettner, author of “The Blue Zones Solutions,” was the opening day keynote speaker. Dan has researched several areas throughout the world where people live the longest and with the most vim and vigor. It stood out to me that in some of these “blue zones,” the older people get, the more they are respected and revered.

I’ve researched why this does not seem to be the case in the United States, other than ours is a much more fragmented and transient society than others where extended family is still the norm. And, unfortunately, we have an obsession with youthfulness.

It’s my intention, however, to shift people’s attitudes away from ageism and toward reverence of and empowerment for elders. In my own work with elders, I use creative engagement as a tool of transformation, inviting them to discover, connect, and create together. I tell them they are brilliant and that I learn from them each time I am with them. I tell them they are my friends and that I love them. And in my keynotes, concerts, and workshops, I share this same passion with those who serve in the trenches, imparting the creative tools of transformation I’ve gained from my one-to-one and group work with elders.

So back to the subject of names and legacies. In my book, Engage! 28 Creative Enrichment Experiences for Older Adults, I include a field-tested outline for The Names Experience. It includes several creative activities and conversation starters surrounding the topic of names. I invite you to consider making this book a part of your arsenal of meaningful engagement tools. And I also remind you that I am more passionate and equipped than ever about uncorking the creative potential in others through my creative engagement workshops and keynote concerts.

Until then, I encourage you to initiate a conversation with someone about your names. Discuss nicknames, the meaning of your names, how you got your names, and see where it takes you. Hopefully to a place of connection, meaningfulness, and enrichment.

From one beautiful name to another.


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.”


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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How Flat Stanley Helped Fulfill an Elder’s Dream

October 31, 2014

The above photo tells the story of how some dreams must be achieved posthumously. It shows my daughter Joanna holding the photo of a couple in front of the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, Germany.  Awhile ago I had a conversation with a 95-year-old gentleman who, because of his wife’s untimely death, was never able to […]

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What Makes People Tick?

September 30, 2014

  “What makes people tick?” This question was posed by a 96-year-old Assisted Living resident awhile back. It was in response to me asking a gathering of residents what topic they’d like addressed for one of our creative enrichment Experiences during Assisted Living Week. After a long pause, Helen broke the silence with her usual […]

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