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A card game for people with dementia and their loved ones has no rules

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For people with dementia, social interactions can be vital in slowing the disease's progression. But as a person's condition worsens, finding enjoyable things to do together can be difficult. Two Vermont women created a new card game to help. Vermont Public's Nina Keck has more.

NINA KECK, BYLINE: The game is called (ho-dee-ay), which is Latin for this day.

EMILY RINKEMA: We really wanted a name that captured the idea of living in the moment.

KECK: That's Emily Rinkema. She and Deb Emerson have both seen loved ones struggle with dementia.

DEB EMERSON: My father-in-law had Alzheimer's. And once he was no longer able to leave the facility he was in, we really struggled to find something to do with him that was meaningful and engaging.

KECK: Family photo albums worked really well.

EMERSON: He didn't remember who he was looking at or any of the stories of the photos, but he would just stare at them, and we would talk about what he was seeing. And it was the - like, just these amazing bright moments.

KECK: The bright moments that Emily Rinkema remembers sharing with her father often involved playing cards until his Parkinson's disease got in the way.

RINKEMA: And as he progressed through dementia, cards became more and more challenging. And a big part of that was the rules.

KECK: Rinkema and Emerson began talking about ways to make a card game without rules using photographs. It took several prototypes, but they eventually came up with a square-shaped deck of cards - 23 pairs - each with a colorful photograph of a bird, from hawks and ospreys to songbirds and sparrows. (Ho-dee-ay) is not the first game targeted to people with cognitive problems, but it may be one of the most free-form.

EMERSON: We wanted to have something that was - I think was really flexible.

KECK: Emerson encourages people to invent their own games with the cards - sort them or just talk about which of the birds you've seen before. The goal is connecting, something experts say is key.

JOHN STEELE TAYLOR: Being socially isolated, that's, like, one of the worst things possible for the brain.

KECK: John Steele Taylor is a neurologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

TAYLOR: Social interactions, especially if they have a leisurely component or a physical activity component, that's ultimately the best way to exercise the brain.

KECK: Renee Reiner's father and grandfather died of Alzheimer's disease. She co-owns several bookstores in Vermont and was excited to be among the first to sell the game. She brought a deck of (ho-dee-ay) cards to an old friend who has dementia, a woman Reiner used to sing with in a choir.

RENEE REINER: And we come upon a red-winged blackbird. And she looks at the bird, and she looks me in the eye, and she says, blackbird - there's a song. I said, yes, there is a song. And I sang along to her for a while. And, you know, she was able to hum along. And it was just a charming, endearing moment.

KECK: (Ho-dee-ay) cards cost $25 online. Emily Rinkema and Deb Emerson say sales have been strong enough that a second set, with photos of classic cars, will be available soon.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck, in Chittenden, Vt.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these sunken eyes and learn to see. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to be free. Blackbird, fly. Blackbird, fly. Into the light of the dark black night. Do do do do do do do do do do do do do... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina has been reporting for VPR since 1996, primarily focusing on the Rutland area. An experienced journalist, Nina covered international and national news for seven years with the Voice of America, working in Washington, D.C., and Germany. While in Germany, she also worked as a stringer for Marketplace. Nina has been honored with two national Edward R. Murrow Awards: In 2006, she won for her investigative reporting on VPR and in 2009 she won for her use of sound. She began her career at Wisconsin Public Radio.