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

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

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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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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