Local | Senior Lifestyle

On Adventure Bus, memory takes back seat to experience

Handmaker Advventure Bus participants and volunteers listen to a docent at DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, May 6. (Angela Salmon/Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging)

Angela Salmon, a program coordinator at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging, doesn’t mind if her clients don’t always remember her name. She doesn’t mind if they sometimes have to search for the right words. When she and her clients are together on the Adventure Bus, a program for those with early to mid-stage memory loss, the capacity to remember takes a back seat to the relationships being cultivated through the experiences of the moment.

Excursions have included the “Butterfly Magic” exhibit at Tucson Botanical Gardens and a Sabino Canyon walking tour.

“Every season we have so much going on,” Salmon says. “It’s not just nature, we’ll go to the University of Arizona [Richard F. Caris] mirror lab; we’ll go the [Flandrau] planetarium; we’ll go to the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research. We are constantly stimulating our minds and learning. This does not mean they will remember at the end of the day what they learned, but while we’re together, we are involved; we are fascinated. We are taking it in together as a group and we’re having fun. We’re always sharing stories and it doesn’t matter that we can’t remember the details at the end of the day.”

Salmon is the coordinator and leader of Handmaker’s Adventure Bus program, which takes adults with diminished memory capacity who can walk without assistive devices on culturally-themed adventures throughout Pima County. They go to the theater, to DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, to the Tucson Clay Co-op or any number of Tucson-area sites every other week. The 10-week program is open to eight adults; Salmon says she has found through experience that even just one more person takes away from the intimacy of the group. Originally, the program was offered one day a week but it proved so popular, a second day was added and now participants can attend on Wednesdays and Fridays. Occasionally there is a waiting list but Salmon is quick to call a prospective client if a slot opens up.

A volunteer assists Salmon each program day. “They have changed over the seasons and years, but to date, we’ve had Bruce Pitz, who has been our dedicated and loyal volunteer for the last two and a half years,” says Salmon, who adds that in addition to sharing 10 hours a week of his time, “he shares his wonderful light and laughter with us. The participants love him.”

Bus trips are not the only way the group “travels.” On the weekday when they are not on the bus, they take a “tour” to a different state or country via photos and postcards, crafts, speakers and food, which the chefs at Handmaker prepare especially for the program. They’ve been to Oregon, Mexico, Poland and Pennsylvania, to name a few.

“We’ll talk about Italy [for example],” Salmon says. “One of our ladies was born and raised in Naples so she’ll get a chance to present about her culture and share souvenirs from her homeland. The art and craft we’ll do for that day is paint and decorate Venetian-inspired masks.”

Salmon provides the materials for the crafts, in this case the masks. She brings paints, feathers, glitters and blank masks and always has photos for examples, which are meant to inspire. Then, “while listening to music in the background,” Salmon says, “they get into the project. They’re painting and they’re just letting the creativity flow.”

Salmon says she has seen firsthand how important the music is. She once had a participant, an attorney, who was very clear that he was “not creative.”

“As he listened to the music playing, he painted without judging his lines as good or bad, right or wrong,” Salmon says. At the end of the program, she handed the man his project. “He said, ‘This is lovely. Who did this?’ and I said, ‘You did this!’ ‘I did this?’ They’re learning things about themselves that they didn’t realize they had within them.”

It was also a vivid lesson for Salmon.

“What I’ve learned, and research and study show it, is that music and art really tap into people who may not remember their children’s names, may not remember what they ate for breakfast or what they did yesterday,” Salmon says. “When we have our sing-along music therapist with us, all the lyrics come back to them. They remember every word to the songs.”

The Adventure Bus concept, says Salmon, was brought to Tucson by former winter visitors Adrienne Drell and her husband, Frank Nitikman. When Nitikman developed early dementia, he began participating in Chicago’s CJE SeniorLife Culture Bus, which offered weekly in-service days and daytrips.

Seeking a similar program for their winters in Tucson, Drell approached Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, who realized that this would be a perfect addition to Handmaker’s adult day programs. Art Martin, Handmaker’s CEO, readily agreed, and the program was launched in 2011.

Nitikman was Handmaker’s first Adventure Bus participant. The program is dedicated in memory of his parents, David and Janette Nitikman, past residents who lived their remaining years at Handmaker.

Although Drell and her husband no longer make the trip from Chicago to Tucson together, she remains an Adventure Bus benefactor, says Salmon.

After leading the Adventure bus for five and a half years, Salmon still marvels at what she sees coming out of the program.

“The participants look forward to seeing their friends,” she says. “They may not remember their names but they look forward to sitting together, eating a meal together, looking at a piece of art together, sharing their opinions and ideas about art. They’re building meaningful relationships. That is something I didn’t know this program would do.”