WORTHINGTON - Craig Stewart not only likes reminiscing, but has a special interest in memory care.
As a result, Stewart - who resides at Ecumen Meadows in Worthington - has found a way to look back with others and lend a hand at the same time.
“I’ve worked up a program that’s a fun form of reminiscence therapy,” Stewart said. “I recognized that staff encourages residents to participate, and even create and innovate, and this blends together certain things we’ve always been doing.”
Stewart said he’s has done plentiful research on human memory, and explained that cognition scientists have identified what can be labeled as a “memory bump” that occurs between individuals’ mid-teens and early 20s.
“This is a very fertile area for memory,” Stewart said. “You take the average age of the residents of memory care; let's say it’s 80 or 90. This would mean that images, songs and events from the late 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s could be accessed. Some cognitive scientists believe … this slows dementia or Alzheimer’s.”
Stewart said he has taken advantage of resources available at the Nobles County Library, and praised reference librarian Laurie Ebbers for accessing plentiful materials for him on “why people forget what they forget and why they remember what they remember.”
An example Stewart cited to distinguish between memories that are often forgotten, versus ones that are retained, pertains to two significant events that took place in late 1941. While it’s commonly known that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor took place on Dec. 7, 1941, people’s recollections from that day may not always be very vivid. In contrast, the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1941 had direct impacts on many in Minnesota, and would likely be remembered with specific details.
In further differentiating between types of memories, Stewart described remembering a person recalling their Social Security number as an example of a long-term memory. A remote memory, he said, could be trying to remember the first license plate number. A crystalized memory, meanwhile, could be completing the nursery rhyme, “Jack and Jill went ….”
Stewart tries to incorporate a few of each of these sorts of elements into his reminiscence therapy program.
“I put together a program of about 25 to 30 minutes mixing a lot of things,” he explained. “There are songs, limericks and nursery rhymes and anecdotes, plus names of dance halls, trucks stops and cafes.”
Stewart also includes what he calls “a focal point to tie it all together” - a puppet he’s named Carla.
“In a way, there’s really nothing unique with this, but it makes it more fun and also helps focus the audience’s attention,” Stewart said.
For examples, Stewart will begin the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall” and, with Carla, ask Memory Care residents to complete it. He also interacts with old songs such as “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” he said, with Carla frequently teasing him about his singing voice.
Stewart came to Worthington from the Twin Cities, where he was an associate professor of communications. He’d been in Chicago before that, and has now spent the past three years at Ecumen Meadows.
“I can’t say enough about the place,” he praised, talking about his current home. “It’s been really great for Elizabeth (wife) and I.”
The Stewarts have four children and 11 grandchildren. One of their children is John, who along with his wife Kris serve as pastors at First Covenant Church in Worthington. Craig Stewart has enjoyed his time in Worthington, and first came up with the idea of creating a puppet he named Carlos for a presentation years ago while volunteering.
“About five years to eight years ago, I volunteered with Head Start … and Bobbi Ewald had a puppet that she was using with an early childhood literacy program,” he recalled, adding with a laugh: “You can correct a puppet, but you can’t correct a 4-year-old child.”
Stewart hopes to turn his reminiscence therapy program into something that could be used at other Ecumen sites across the Midwest. To date, he and Carla have entertained audiences as small as two and as large a dozen, but he’s hopeful that Memory Care patients outside of Worthington can see the program - perhaps via an iPhone or iPad.
Stewart doesn’t pretend to be a perfect or even very good entertainer. For him, it’s all about what his audience gets out of it.
“I'm a lousy ventriloquist - some of the kids would say, ‘I see your lips moving,’” he said, recalling his Head Start volunteerism. “I make it up as I go along, and there’s just a lot of ad-lib interaction with the audience. But the whole idea with this is to stretch minds, and hopefully slow down the decline in cognition.”