Keeping the Spirit Alive

by Elise Ollrich


Starting when I was young, my mom encouraged me to let my light shine in everything I did. This led me through college as I studied Sociology and Studio Art. It followed me into my first internship in a senior living community where I discovered the magic of therapeutic recreation. It followed me as I pursued a career in that field, perfectly marrying my two passions to serve others and employ my creativity. I have had the opportunity to let my light shine at two senior living campuses as an activities coordinator. In each setting I have focused on residents in memory care, which I consider to be a true privilege.


Working in memory care, I quickly learned that whatever attitude I brought onto the floor was mirrored by the residents. If I was rushed, inattentive, or distracted, our residents often seemed more frantic, confused, or likely to display negative symptoms of their dementia. However, if I arrived calm, present, patient, engaging, encouraging, and letting my light shine, our residents mirrored those characteristics instead. In treating our residents with dignity, compassion, and integrity, my colleagues and I are able to offer them opportunities to let their spirit and light shine through.


One of the most memorable opportunities occurred last summer, when our senior living community presented an intergenerational art show. The show included handmade pieces by our residents and by the children–our grandfriends–from our adjoining child care. Residents submitted an outpouring of items representing all seasons of life, from paintings to knit sweaters to quilts. Residents, grandfriends, family, and community members attended the grand opening event. The artists were filled with pride and joy, and the intergenerational dynamic of the show was truly magical.


One of our residents in memory care, Lucille (fictitious name), is known for her attention to detail and sweet, Southern roots and manners. As a seamstress, she had created clothing for her own wardrobe, wedding gowns for her daughters, and outfits for her young granddaughter. When her granddaughter outgrew the clothing, Lucille kept the outfits to use the fabric for a future project.


That future project came years ago in the form of an exquisite, hand-stitched quilt. Lucille’s daughter brought us the quilt, which we featured in our art show. Lucille attended the grand opening with her family. Her face lit up as they approached the quilt. While her expert hands explored the piece, her face registered appreciation for its beauty, yet she didn’t recognize it as her own creation. When her daughter explained who had placed those stitches, Lucille’s reaction was palpable. Her display of personality, joy, and spirit encourage and inspire me even today.


In his Art of Living, Wilferd Peterson wrote, “Walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful, the planners, the doers, the successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground. Let their spirit ignite a fire within you to leave this world better than when you found it.”


In Peterson’s words, the people we are caring for have been the dreamers, believers, courageous, cheerful, planners, doers, and successful ones. Now, they are in a season of life that requires us to step into these roles to assist them. I encourage you to be calm, present, patient, engaging, and encouraging. Live in the moment with them. Nurture their courage to try something new. Provide them opportunities to be successful in a task–any task–that will fill them with purpose, dignity, and spirit. We are responsible to keep their spirit alive, which is sure to bring joy to caregiver and recipient alike!



The Twin Cities Jewish Community Alzheimer’s Task Force is presenting a half-day conference that will provide education and support for caregivers and those supporting a loved one with dementia. The event, “Keeping the Spirit Alive,” will be held on Sunday, April 30, from 8 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. at Adath Jeshurun Synagogue in Minnetonka. It is free and open to the public. You may register beginning March 1, 2017 online at or by calling Jewish Family Service of St. Paul (JFS) at 651-698-0767. The Twin Cities Jewish Community Alzheimer’s Task Force is a committee of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis (JFCS) and Jewish Family Service of St. Paul (JFS). Conference underwriters are Fingerhut Family Foundation, Kelner-Witebsky Memory Care Fund, and Carol Shapiro and Family.