For the past three years or so, I’ve been searching for an activity that my husband with dementia would enjoy. In his healthy days, he was good with machines. He liked fixing chair legs and picture frames in his workshop. He built bookshelves. He had a shed full of tools and supplies, from a radial arm saw to a lathe, and a cupboard brimming with boxes of nails and screws.
Two events put an end to his grand projects. We moved away from the house with the workshop and he was diagnosed with mild vascular dementia.
First, I tried to interest him in sewing a quilt. Since he liked machines, maybe this would engage him. I supervised and he measured and sewed.
He made a beautiful quilt that today graces a wall of our living room. However, that was five years ago. Now we make quilts together. I do all the measuring and he sews the seams after I’ve set them up for him. I get the feeling that he’s not really interested and is just sewing to indulge me.
Another activity that I tried was jigsaw puzzles. I hoped he’d work on them while I was otherwise occupied, doing desk work or writing. No, he has color weakness, and this made doing puzzles more of a frustration than a pleasure.
Coloring mandalas with colored pencils was a total bust. So was making cloth baskets.
A friend who is a potter suggested my husband might like to work with clay. She has a studio and, though semi-retired, still teaches a few students.
When we arrived for our first session, we each got a pound of gray clay. Our friend showed us how to bang out the air bubbles. Then my guy dove in. For an hour or more, he shaped the clay. I’d never seen him so absorbed in anything creative. This first lesson, he made a cat-like animal. The second session, he made a coil pot with a lid.
The third time, he rolled out a thin slab and curved it up into a dish that he stamped with designs.
I’ve since wondered what is different about working with clay. Maybe it is the sensuality of the medium. Maybe he feels powerful having an effect on a glob of mud, and creating something. In most other aspects of his life with dementia, he’s dependent on me. He can’t drive, can’t remember what day it is, or what we did that morning. I can only imagine how he feels: powerless, frustrated, confused.
Whatever the reason, he loves the clay. And I’m thrilled to have found a craft that makes him happy.