Opening Hearts and Minds: CMBI’s Inaugural Year

The Chicagoland Memory Bridge Initiative (CMBI) educates area public school students about Alzheimer’s disease and pairs them with elders living with the disease. Using a unique 12-week after-school curriculum, CMBI staff works closely with teachers and Alzheimer’s care facilities to foster positive intergenerational communication and to facilitate relationships between students and people with dementia. On June 13, 2006, CMBI concluded its inaugural year, with 536 students, teachers, and care facility residents participating in the program. Our students ranged in age from 10 to 17, and they came from 11 Chicago-area high schools, 5 middle schools, and 2 elementary schools. The care facilities were located in Chicago and the outlying areas.

During the year, students learned about the parts of the brain, types of memory, and the neurological impact of Alzheimer’s disease. They also learned a variety of creative ways to communicate with their “buddies” at the care facilities, including poetry, letter writing, music, painting, and dance. To supplement their learning, CMBI sponsored visits from special guests, including Esther Gutiérrez-Sloan, Founder of SALSArobics. Esther introduced students to a number of simple ways to introduce touch with their buddies in the form of clapping, stretching, and rhythm walking. The students also met with Jenny Knauss, a health education advocate in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and her husband, Don Moyer. The students had many questions for Jenny about growing up in Britain during World War Two, working as a teacher in Nigeria, and living a full life with Alzheimer’s disease.

But the highlight of the year was the buddy visits. CMBI students met with their buddies four times during the semester, sharing stories that enabled the residents to “step outside” the restrictions of Alzheimer’s disease. One resident explained in detail the process and joy of milking a goat on her farm when she was growing up. Another resident, who was retired from the U.S. Navy, recounted a World War Two battle that he fought in on his 18th birthday. These stories helped open the hearts and minds of the students, many of whom have never been outside of their neighborhoods in Chicago. According to one CMBI graduate, “Coming here to visit my buddy is something I will cherish forever.” One Memory Bridge teacher commented, “I find it quite remarkable that even though these students don’t necessarily excel within an academic setting, they are eager to participate in [the CMBI] program.”

The CMBI was funded by a grant from the Illinois Department of Health and Human Services and will expand its programming for the 2006-07 school year.

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