The Ripple Effect: Memory Bridge’s Work in Australian Communities

In early March, Michael Verde embarked on a speaking tour of Australia, beginning in the communities of Hervey Bay and Benalla. Sadly, the spread of the coronavirus led to the abrupt termination of the trip – but not before leaving a significant impact on those who participated.

With so much uncertainty in the world, it’s easy to feel helpless. Especially when lives depend on maintaining physical distance, when all of us feel cut off from communities, friends, or family members. Yet, as Kaye Roberts, the secretary of Benalla’s Bridging Spaces, observed, “We are all now feeling the dismembering and isolation – in family, locally and globally. Will we understand now what it is to be elderly, frail and…?” In the increasing isolation in our world, she sees an opportunity to increase our empathy with the lonely, the ignored, those who have been, as Michael puts it, “dis-membered” from society.

All too often, this describes the feelings of people with dementia.

Memory Bridge is not a prescriptive method or a step-by-step program. Instead, its mission is to radically shift the way people without dementia understand and interact with people with dementia. To move from a model of “doing for” to a state of “being with.”

I am just starting to notice things I hadn't before. There is no going back.

This starts with individuals: one person relating to another. And as these individual relationships develop, they begin to affect the wider community. After a workshop, one caregiver in Benalla noted the way things have changed as a result of her new approach to relationships with people with dementia. “I have also begun to notice and respond to the finer relationship dynamics going on between the residents. They often show signs of comfort from one person to another, drawing my attention to any distress they may see in each other,” the carer said. “I am just starting to notice things I hadn’t noticed before.  … There is no going back to the way I worked before.”

Another workshop participant said, “I am so thankful Memory Bridge has shone a light on a vastly different way of being with people with dementia.  In every visit there are examples of connection and I wonder about the days we are not there. This invitation to be present is so vital to connection, to community.  Some carers have noticed the difference and ask questions – the beginning ripples of a change in attitude?”

And the ripples spread outward, shaping communities through each individual’s journey. Here are a few of their stories:

Isn’t he beautiful?

One day as my dance session was about to start, Deidre called me over. She was pointing into the distance saying, “Isn’t he beautiful?” with tears in her eyes and a far away look. I was intrigued and asked her what she could see. I could sense in my own body a warmth around my heart and feelings of love.

She said it was a horse, and she reached out into space. As Deidre described the color of the horse and what it was doing, I found myself being drawn into the experience with her. … I could see in her smile, in the reaching through her whole body, the yearning that the experience permeated her whole body and mind, but there was nothing there except Deidre’s and my imagination, felt sense, curiosity, and wonder.

In that moment we had a shared experience which was full of meaning and feeling. Deidre found a way to tell me about how much the horse meant to her and how she was feeling, but to do that I had to be willing to leave the non-linear normal world and enter her world of image and metaphor.

– Maeve Larkin, Bridging Spaces founder and dance therapist

One and a half cups of tea

In weekly visits to an aged care facility, I have frequently observed the light come back to the eyes of otherwise disengaged residents in chairs, wheelchairs, or beds. I’ve heard the change in volume of voice and the “stilling” of repetitive movement for a while.  I’ve seen smiles where before there were worry lines on faces.

The difference has come after an interaction which honored and invited the presence of the resident by a practitioner of Memory Bridge. I wanted to learn more! After many stumblings, I still make “mistakes.” Yet there have been a couple of incidents I will share.

A 103-year-old woman in a wheelchair. One of the carers came by and saw her foot had fallen from the footrest – again! Quietly saying her name, he gently picked up her foot and put it on the footrest. Her reaction was instantaneous: “Get away from me!”

I thought about it a lot as I knew this woman well.  I have the utmost respect for the carers in the facility and I see and hear their concern and care.  This was not a rough interaction – at the worst it was thoughtless. I put myself in her wheelchair and I dozed, so to speak!  From her perspective, while dozing someone came from behind, touched her foot, moved it, and startled her from reverie. Perfect recipe for a hostile reaction – and perhaps another diagnosis of a cranky personality?

A slow, quiet approach from the front, a gentle voice would “awaken” her, and a very slow and gentle pressure on her hand with the question “May I put your foot back on the footrest?” Always quietly inviting, and only slowly moving.

We became firm friends! I miss her!

A different woman had a reputation as “angry” and “difficult.” One day, she was obviously agitated and noisy, but I noticed she was licking her lips often and they looked dry. There were mugs with other residents but none for her, so I inquired about a cup of tea. The helper said “I wish you luck with that – she threw one all over me before!”

With some trepidation I thought to try anyway. With mug in hand I crouched beside her chair and gently called her by name asking if she would like a cup of tea. Her agitation lessened and the light in her eyes changed. She drank one and a half cups of tea.

– Kaye Roberts, Bridging Spaces secretary

God’s waiting room

Hervey Bay is a regional, coastal city in Queensland, Australia. … Many people have relocated to this area to retire due to the reasonable cost of living and beautiful weather. This means that many older people who live in this area are disconnected by geography from their long-term support systems, friends, and family.  It also means that our community has the highest incidence and prevalence rates of dementia in the state, and that the resulting social isolation and loneliness is endemic and almost considered to be inevitable.

This social environment demonstrates an immense need, and also presents the opportunity to do something amazing in changing the way our community as a whole sees dementia, how organizations respond, and building up people within the community to address loneliness on a very personal level.

During Michael’s visit we were able to conduct two “I am a Bridge” training programs, which has resulted in the development of a nucleus of people who are now being Bridges into the community of people with dementia in Hervey Bay. Not one, but two residential aged care facilities were keen to partner on this program, and both set aside their normal understanding of “volunteers” to allow these Bridges to be visitors and join with people with dementia in their aged care facilities.

This was a big shift within these facilities, but the real beauty of this experience was the bonding of the Bridges and the authenticity of their commitment to making our community inclusive of people with dementia. You add to this each person’s humility and openness, and we can see a fertile ground for the expansion of this initiative into the future.

Hervey Bay has been known as “God’s waiting room” by many within and outside our community.  Through Memory Bridge I am hoping that people may realize that “God’s waiting room” may actually be a place filled with warmth, connection, comfort, and love.

– Natalie Sell, owner of Simple Solutions Training and Consulting

Excerpts from responses and stories following Michael Verde’s presentations in Australia. Text has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.

To hear more about Maeve Larkin, Bridging Spaces, and Michael’s visit, listen to Maeve’s interview on One FM with Peter D.

To learn more about Natalie Sell’s work, visit her website at

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