When I was in the hospital with my mother, R~ (the home health aide who was very receptive to ElderSparks) introduced me to an expression I had never heard before: “Once a man, twice a child.” It refers of course to the fact that we come into the world as creatures who are totally dependent on others for meeting our physical needs — and return to that state once old age and infirmity set in.

A second meaning refers to the qualities closely associated with childhood (e.g., openness, playfulness, wonder, innocence, trust, and spontaneity) which re-emerge years later as elderly minds deteriorate. In my mother’s case, flashes of that inner child were responsible for some of my most cherished memories of our times together.

The truth is that before her dementia took root, our conversations often followed well-worn, tired scripts that had long outlived their usefulness — almost like a broken record. Rare was the experience of discovering anything new about each other, seeing each other afresh, or feeling a joyful connection. That changed however once creative play and art-making replaced talking as our primary form of communication. My mother’s responses, or the ways in which she actively participated, revealed traits that her social conditioning and self-censorship had previously kept under wraps. Dementia was responsible for dissolving those boundaries but the ElderSparks work gave voice to that which remained. It brought out the child in each of us, united us around the present moment, and created the opening for imagination and self-expression to surprise and enthrall. New life was breathed into a relationship nearing its temporal end. Instead of reaching backwards into the distant past for what used to be, I was sustained by the gifts of our childlike selves we exchanged with each other.