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  • Ruth Rothbart-Mayer

Settle Your Glitter

glitter lights

“I can’t believe what my mother did yesterday, “Rebecca cried out, arms waving. “She walked out of her room with nothing but bra and panties on! The aides got to her and brought her back to her room but she refused, dead refused to get dressed and missed her doctor’s appointment. Then they called ME. What am I supposed to do? They’re supposed to know how to deal with someone with dementia!”

The support group I run pondered the dilemma. Is the problem with the facility or with her mother’s dementia. Harry turned to Rebecca and asked her what upset her most.

“All of it, I can’t take it. Every day there’s a new twist, it’s as though she does this to me purposely.”

The group wanted Rebecca to take action. They understood that she feels pressed to the wall and despite her best efforts, gets agitated and then can’t make decisions.

I said, “Let’s settle the glitter.” All eyes turned to me. I took out a big snow globe and invited the group to watch as the snowflakes slowly danced around the winter scene and then to the ground. The room went quiet.

Families suffer from not knowing how to cope with a person’s unexpected, seemingly irrational behavior, or when the next eruption will happen. Seasoned caregivers have learned that when their family member is in an unpredictable state of decline, they need to rely on the motto “expect the unexpected.” Put the behavior into the context of the illness.

Harry suggested that Rebecca not take any of it personally since it caused her to freeze up. If she can’t make decisions, the facility will instead. Rebecca took that to heart.

Harry cares for his wife who has heart failure and dementia and is also responsible for his brother who is schizophrenic and lives in a facility. He knew what it was like to be pressed so “settling the glitter” rang true for him.

Everyone could feel Rebecca’s anguish. They, too, had felt a sense of desperation when problems abounded, solutions didn’t.

The group puzzled through ideas for Rebecca to plan for future episodes; reschedule the doctor’s appointment, ask the doctor to come to her, ask the head nurse, whom her mother responds to, to step in.

The group also talked about cause; sometimes knowing the cause can provide clues. Rebecca’s mother had been a full professor at a major university and could still give a good, if not always coherent, lecture. She was not used to being ignored or not considered but since she wasn’t able to make herself understood clearly, her temper flared. She took the action that got attention.

Rebecca was quieter now. She had an epiphany, “My mother was supposed to get together with her friends for exercise and lunch. Had the aides checked her calendar, they would have seen in big block letters EXERCISE AND LUNCH WITH THE GIRLS. Then they would have understood her mother’s agitation.

Rebecca knew that when her mother complained about being lonely with nothing to do, the calendar helped redirect her. She had been bound by schedules throughout her career, so calendars were familiar.

Settling your glitter is a euphemism for keeping cool like a lava light which for those in the know has a fluid that gently swirls around, keeping a room (and the people in it) mellow.

A fish tank can do the same. Snoozelens offer a similar experience. Used widely in facilities for people with special needs or dementia they are specially designed rooms that use sensory stimulation to achieve the same thing as the glitter jar: quieting the mind, allowing a person to “let go” the noise and visual stimulation that can be agitating.

Lisa Damour, PhD, noted author and psychologist works with teens and offers insights about helping them with their emotional storms. She shakes a jar of water and colorful glitter and then she and a teen watch as the glitter settles to the bottom at which point, after a moment of silence, the discussion can begin.

Settling your glitter is a good metaphor. It does what we often have a hard time doing…taking pause.


Ruth Rothbart-Mayer, LCSW, C-ASWCM


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Individual Psychotherapy & Elder Care Coaching

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