A pile of LEGOs and your imagination are enough to get you lost in a world of make believe.
Loretta Veney has loved playing with LEGOs ever since she was a kid. She slowly discovered that the brightly-colored bricks provided more than entertainment, they allowed her to get closer to her mom, Doris.
"One of the first things I noticed as I got older was the LEGO bricks were not only a great connection for us but allowed us to talk through difficult things," she said.
The LEGOs would help maintain that deep connection when Veney's mom was diagnosed with dementia in 2014.
"That blank stare that you can’t stand with Alzheimer’s, I mean its unnerving. But when you would get the bricks out, that would go away and she would be really engaged and she’d look you right in the eye and it was so cool."
Veney believed she could spark that same kind of joy in other people with dementia, so she became certified in what's called LEGO Serious Play. The program is designed to help with team-building, problem-solving and communication. Veney uses the LEGOs to provide cognitive and emotional stimulation for people with dementia or Alzheimer's by guiding participants through various building exercises.
She remembers one client who built her structure upside-down.
"I’d never seen anybody do that so I say 'Wow, look at yours! That’s awesome, its upside down!' She looks at me like I’m crazy and she says, 'Well of course its upside down, it’s just like my brain.'"
"So she clearly understood that something is disconnected in her brain and that’s how she chose to show that," said Veney.
Veney said she has countless stories of people with dementia or Alzheimer's who come alive and share memories when they start playing with the LEGOs.
"Either something is on lock and they talk about it or it just becomes this 3D thing in their hand that they can actually look at. So its amazing, absolutely amazing."
Veney also leads LEGO Serious Play workshops for caregivers, to give them the chance to unwind and de-stress. Gail Titus, whose mom Dolores has dementia, has participated in a couple of the sessions.
"For me it is a great stress reducer," she said. "The initial attraction to me was the ability to do something new and fun and something that my mother and I could do together, we could certainly reminisce about the past."
Veney said her mom played with LEGOs until a few days before she passed away in January of 2022. She doesn't believe playing with LEGOs slowed the progression of the disease but she does know it gave her more moments to engage and connect with her mom that she might not otherwise have had.
"My mother touched a lot of people so you definitely want to stay out there and do that. As much as I miss her, she’s still here because I’m still doing this work."
Veney is hosting a virtual LEGO Serious Play workshop with the Alzheimer's Association of Greater Maryland on Tuesday May 31. If you register before May 20, you will be sent a free LEGO kit for the session. For more information on how to register, click here.
More information about Loretta Veney and the work she does, click here.