Somewhere in the maze of North Philadelphia—in a tiny neighborhood you’ve zoomed past on I-95 a hundred times without ever thinking about—I’m pulling open a heavy door to a community center.
First impression: the smell of burnt coffee. Community centers are dependable in this way, like waiting rooms and used car dealerships. Though not immediately visible, I’m positive this coffee is being served in Styrofoam cups.
The entranceway is warmly lit, with colorful paintings on the walls. Up ahead—at what I presume is the front desk—an elderly Latino man in a half-zipped green tracksuit is staring down intently. At what I can’t tell. He might be reading a book, or building a puzzle.
He’s making a sandwich.
And this is when I first sense there’s something wonderfully unusual—possibly even magical—about this place. The man’s sandwich has three layers: crackers, potato chips, and crackers.
Without ever acknowledging me, he slides the cracker-wich into a plastic baggie, zips the baggie in his track suit, and sneaks off to a room with salsa music and pool tables.
No point in being sneaky, I think.
If your sandwich has half as many crumbs as I expect, you won’t be hard to find.
I went to The Mann Older Adult Center in March to run a workshop with an Alzheimer’s Association program called Memories in the Making.
The workshop took place in a cement-floored room, about the size of a basement. My introducer was a pretty, dark-haired woman named Dora. Roughly a dozen participants, mostly Latino women between sixty and eighty, nodded politely as they were told to examine the spaces between their fingers. I could tell by their expressions they found this a bizarre thing to be doing before lunch on a Friday.
It’s awkward to be introduced in a foreign language. There’s nothing you can do but stand there with your back straight and your lips pressed together. As the introduction runs into its fourth minute, you feel the room beginning to transform around you, and suddenly you’re in one of those surreal paintings where everything in the room is perfectly normal—except for ONE THING. The clock is upside down. The door has no knob. What is it here?
Memories in the Making is an immensely successful program. It’s run in communities all over America, and because those communities are diverse, the program appears in different forms. But the always the mission is similar: the inability to communicate with other people is one of the most painful parts of Alzheimer’s Disease. M.I.M. allows people to express themselves and communicate via art.
It’s amazing to watch what happens when you give someone a paintbrush, or uncork a gluestick. Whether they consider themselves an “artist” or not, they get right to work. This sort of “making” is written into our DNA.
In a community like the one I visited in North Philadelphia—virtually an island of Spanish-speaking people—a program like M.I.M. is especially important. You can imagine how isolating it would be to live in a foreign country as a senior. On top of that now you have Alzheimer’s Disease, that vicious constellation of plaques and tangles spreading through your brain, impairing functions, including basic communication. M.I.M. is an outlet, a place you might feel human again for a while no matter what’s happening outside that room.
I was honored lead the workshop. It went well, I think. Not all of the participants had Alzheimer’s, but many did, or related dementias. Inside one of the painted handprints, one of the women wrote this poem, which she remembered her mother whispering to her over fifty years before:
(translated from Spanish)
“I asked God to give me a flower,
And He gave me a garden.
I asked God to give me a tree,
And He gave me a forest.
I asked God to give me a daughter,
And He gave me you.”
Others were so enthusiastic they wanted to give their advice, orally. I’ve posted one of those videos below. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you might still listen, just to feel the sincerity and urgency in the voice.
Special thanks to Raul Mux, who runs the M.I.M. program, and to Dora, Alicia, and Sarai, my wonderful co-hosts.