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For Those Suffering With Dementia, Conversation Starters To Care About

Conversations with the elderly can be difficult at times, and much more so if the elderly person suffers from dementia. Southbury resident Kathie Nitz believes that she has come up with the answer — or rather, the 50-plus questions — that makes communication between generations both fun and productive. She has recently launched a product that is a journey of her heart, she said, and one that offers others a means of “bridging generations through conversations.” Caring Cards, a deck of more than 50 cards imprinted with questions to prompt conversations and share memories, was born out of a difficult situation, she said.

The caregiver to her mother, Doreen Phillips, since 2003, Ms Nitz found that as her mother’s dementia progressed, conversations became stilted between them. One day in 2006, she found herself sitting at lunch with her mother and realized she had nothing new to talk to her about. It was not the first time they had fallen into a conversational void. Seeking a way to improve those situations, Ms Nitz began to imagine cards that could be used as conversation starters.

“I first just started thinking of questions and writing them down on little pieces of paper. Then I’d test them out on my mother,” said Ms Nitz. Not all of the questions resonated with her, and as the idea of Caring Cards evolved, Ms Nitz tweaked the questions. She learned that open-ended questions led to better conversations, she said, so none of the Caring Cards are “Yes” or “No” questions.

“I based the conversation starters on things I was interested in finding out, and then looked at how the questions could span people’s life histories, from childhood to adulthood,” she said.

In 2008, Ms Nitz received certification through Coaches Training Institute in California, and a year later, in relationship coaching, a lifestyle change that she said was purely coincidental to her situation.

“We’re always in relationships with others,” Ms Nitz pointed out. As she became more deeply involved in her mother’s caretaking, Ms Nitz observed how coaching transformed her life. Life and relationship coaches, she explained, are solution oriented, and solutions are needed in many instances of eldercare. “[In life coaching] we learn how to respect different perspectives and communicate more effectively. Instead of seeing frustrations in problems with my mother, I looked for solutions and how to present those solutions respectfully,” Ms Nitz said.

 “My sweet spot now is caregiver coaching, to help adult children navigate the challenges of eldercare. It’s amazing how quickly my approach to care giving shifted [with life coach training],” she said.

Having demonstrated to herself the benefits of conversation starters, Ms Nitz decided Caring Cards was a project from which others could gain help, and developed them to be marketable. She granted exclusive rights to a fellow life coach, Dr Amy D’Aprix of Toronto, Canada, from 2011 to 2012, but as of January 2013, has taken on exclusive rights herself. Dr D’Aprix continues to market the Dr Amy brand conversation starter cards.

Caring Cards bring out memories, dreams, family stories, and more through questions like “What birthdays do you most remember?” “What did your parents do for a living?” or “What was the coolest car a person could own when you were younger?” Ms Nitz has packaged the cards so that beneath the top three informational cards, when a person opens a new package, the first conversation card they see asks, “How do you know if someone loves you?”

It is a question Ms Nitz said she would never have thought to ask her mother before creating the cards, but it resulted in an unforgettable response from her mother. “She said, ‘That’s easy. You feel it.’”

“What does it feel like?” Ms Nitz asked her mother, and received the answer, “It’s warm and soft.”

“What a beautiful, simple, and moving response,” Ms Nitz reflected. She has seen over and again in her own use of Caring Cards, and heard from other users, the ways in which conversations flow. She has learned things about her mother she did not know, and heard her mother express things in a manner that Ms Nitz would not have anticipated.

The original intention of the cards was to facilitate conversations with a person with dementia, she said, but the appeal has become much broader. “They are for family members of all ages to relate to each other,” Ms Nitz noted. Children will enjoy learning about their parents, and parent might hear some answers from their children that are revealing. Adults can share memories with each other, and children can make memories with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and family friends.

A Perfect Time

“With the holidays just around the corner and families gathering, it is the perfect time to try out Caring Cards. Oftentimes, elders are brought to the table and they sit there as conversation between other family members moves around them at lightning speed. Caring Cards provides a way to engage the older people, and for families to learn about each other,” said Ms Nitz. “It’s about creating meaningful connections.”

She has even heard how one family in Australia used Caring Cards to learn about an older relative. When the elderly person died, each family member was asked to write down what they had learned in those conversations, and the results were used to eulogize the loved one. “I never imagined the cards being used like that, but it’s wonderful,” Ms Nitz said.

How the packet of Caring Cards is used will be somewhat an individualized approach, she said. “Some people just pull out a card and ask the question, to get going,” Ms Nitz said. In some instances, an older person or someone with dementia might feel like he or she is being interrogated, or tested. “In that case, you might hold out the cards and say, ‘Pick a card and let’s chat.’ Let them be in charge,” she said.

The accuracy of the answer or story is not the important part of the conversation, so listeners should not let that get in the way of the communication. “Just follow the thread of conversation, wherever it goes. The cards are just to prompt the user,” said Ms Nitz. Improvisation is fine.

“One of the things I love about these cards is watching people open the packet and flip through the questions. You can see people accessing their own memories,” she said.

Caring Cards are great when traveling with mixed generations, Skyping, or during phone conversations, Ms Nitz said. Currently, Caring Cards are being used by individuals, home health care agencies and providers, assisted living communities, Hospice and visiting nurses, and dementia support groups.

Launch Party

Ms Nitz will host a Launch Party for Caring Cards at Masonicare of Newtown, Tuesday, December 10, at 3:30 pm. Her mother has been a resident of Masonicare of Newtown since 2009, where she is able to receive the skilled nursing care she now requires.

“The launch is really part of the Masonicare holiday get-together that day,” Ms Nitz said. She will donate approximately 200 sets of Caring Cards to the families of people living at Masonicare and Lockwood Lodge, that day. “I wanted my mom to be able to join in the celebration of launching the cards,” she said.

Caring Cards and the conversations they provoke have allowed her to just be the daughter — not the caregiver, said Ms Nitz, and allow her to relax and enjoy the experience of being with her mother. “It’s important, too, to remember that you don’t have to fill every single moment of a visit with conversation,” she stressed. Caring Cards are meant to close the unintended gaps in a visit.

“Having prompts,” said Ms Nitz, “can change things.”

Caring Cards are available at www.caringcards.com, or at Newbury Place, 41 Oak Tree Place, Southbury. Each packet of cards costs $9.95 plus shipping, and tax where applicable.

A portion of the sales from Caring Cards supports the Dosi-Do Fund through the Connecticut Community Foundation, established by Ms Nitz this year to bridge generations through conversation and activities.

“Caring Cards have led me to many wonderful moments,” Ms Nitz said, “and I hope they can do so for others.”

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