Hailey Richman took her time as she picked up the last puzzle piece, first checking with her partner who beamed back in approval, before fitting it into place. For Hailey, who is 11, piecing together a puzzle is more than a game – it’s a mission. The woman across from her with a purple sweater and glittery black beads has dementia, and Hailey’s goal is to improve her care and bring young people and seniors together over puzzles.
She is the founder of Kid Caregivers, an organization that works to support the estimated 1.4 million children who help care for an aging, sick or disabled loved one in their family. What started as a fun activity with her own grandmother led her to start the “Puzzle Time Project,” now operating in 16 states, and as far away as South Africa as Russia.
Her work has won her national attention, with two presidential Volunteer Service Awards and awards from the Points of Light Foundation. And she has been a featured speaker at national Alzheimer’s conferences. Last year, she went to Capitol Hill to meet with her state senators to lobby for support for caregivers.
On a recent January Saturday, she was at a memory care facility in Manhattan, training volunteers from a nearby high school. In her unicorn tee shirt and camouflage leggings, Hailey wandered from group to group at the busy table, offering smiles of encouragement and suggestions (“Start with the corner pieces”) as the seniors and students put together the specially-made puzzles.
Early connection to Alzheimer’s
Hailey’s connection to Alzheimer’s started when she was 4 years old, and her grandmother was diagnosed with the disease. Hailey started accompanying Emma on visits to her beloved grandmother at the memory care community.
Emma sometimes brought along puzzles for Hailey to solve with her grandmother. They found it was something the two of them enjoyed doing together and it was a way to spark conversations. They also shared the puzzles with other residents and other children they saw there who were fidgeting or waiting around with long faces during visits with their family members.
Puzzles can be stimulating and calming for people with dementia. But most jigsaw puzzles are too complicated for people with memory issues, and large-piece puzzles are usually made for children. Hailey and her mother joined forces with a group called Puzzles to Remember, which was founded a decade ago by a Boston teenager named Max Wallack who had a great grandmother with Alzheimer’s. Wallack worked with a company to design 36-piece puzzles of colorful images of Paris or birds or old-fashioned scenes meant to appeal to adults and stimulate conversation.
“No Mickey Mouse,” Hailey insists.
By the time she was 7, Hailey and her mother started distributing puzzles for Puzzles to Remember. Later, she got other children, including friends from school and her Girl Scout troop, involved too. Four years later, Hailey has distributed 36,000 puzzles to memory care facilities and nursing homes and she has become the associate director of Puzzles to Remember.
In 2018, Kid Caregivers officially launched the Puzzle Time Program, in partnership with Puzzles to Remember. The intergenerational model, with youth volunteers aged 9-17 partnering with local Alzheimer’s care communities, is catching on with new groups forming at schools or scout troops.
Reaching out to kid caregivers
In addition to her focus on Puzzle Time, Hailey has developed a host of resources for child caregivers, mostly through her blog, where she posts tips for visiting someone with Alzheimer’s.
These first blogs were dictated to her mother, who typed them up and posted them on-line. But the drive was hers’, Emma says. Hailey wanted to help those sad-faced kids she’d seen when she visited her grandma, by sharing her kid point-of-view about their common caregiving experiences.
At school, friends might talk about “going shopping with their grandmas,” Hailey says. But on her blog, children living with someone with Alzheimer’s might find something more relatable. She describes, for example, one winter day when her grandmother refused to wear her coat when they went out side for a walk. She solved the problem by using her grandma’s coat as a blanket. “It still kept her warm and we were still able to take her outside!”
Her blog is full of advice and unfailing good cheer to let other kid caregivers know they are not alone and that they matter.
After four years of doing this work, Hailey says she believes deeply in the transformative power of these intergenerational programs. Kids bring joy to the seniors, and the kids themselves can feel a sense of accomplishment and compassion.
“I might not have been that compassionate myself,” muses Hailey, “if I hadn’t had this going on with my grandma.”
Deanne Eagle is a writer and communications professional focusing on healthcare. She lives in New York City.