With a little help from Vincent

Ruth was a retired professor of art history. She had been one of the first female professors at a large university and was very accomplished in her field. Her son, James, lived far away. He visited when he could, but it wasn’t very often. Ruth had undergone a series of strokes. She could talk, but she couldn’t really engage in a conversation of much depth. She was quite forgetful and sometimes disoriented. This became very obvious during phone calls, which were painful for James as she had been so bright and articulate in her past.

James contacted the Thoughtful Engagement® program in the city where Ruth lived and explained the situation. He was beside himself with guilt that he couldn’t visit more. He loved his mother very much. He had hoped she would consent to move to where he lived. But he understood that what little she had of his dad and her former life was very important to her. She needed to stay in her own home. They had full-time home care for her, and by a good company. But the caregivers just weren’t able to engage Ruth’s intellect and keep her stimulated. James hated to see her dwindling so.

The Thoughtful Engagement Specialist came to the home and was introduced “as James’ friend.” Ruth was pleasant, a bit reserved, and overly polite in the way people can get when they aren’t sure what to do. She would frequently say, “Now what’s your name again, dear? Have we met before?” As they were drinking coffee, the specialist noticed a print of Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflowers. She commented on how lovely it was. Ruth’s eyes lit up as she began describing the brushwork that made this painting so special.

Over the course of the next week, the specialist put together a PowerPoint slide show of different paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. At their next visit, she brought out her laptop and Ruth began commenting on each of the paintings. Ruth soon seemed to decide that the specialist was a student in need of a mentor. “Teaching” gave her a renewed sense of purpose. Each week the specialist chose a different artist. They went through the Impressionists and then the Cubists and Dadaists. When the immersive Van Gogh exhibit came to town, they even arranged a field trip to see it.

Ruth was always excited to learn that her “student” was coming for a visit and made sure to dress up for the occasion. James now had topics to ask his mother about: “How did it go with your student?” Even if she repeated herself about a visit from a few weeks back, she was clearly delighted with the relationship, which made James feel much, much better.

“I feel like I got a bit of my old mother back. Now we had some things we could talk about that she genuinely enjoyed. I could tell she was happy with her days.”
—James, long distance son

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