As residents of the elder care home slowly fill the common room, the teasing begins and the first smiles start to appear. Kidding around is a warm-up, but it’s also essential to the approach of thāllo, a program that brings participatory entertainment and mental stimulation to elder care facilities in Greece, with a special focus on people living with dementia. Vicky is joined by Notis and Constantina, who together founded the program.
Notis starts singing. It’s a classic Greek song.
“In this phony world, play me some notes,” he croons.
Some of the seniors join in, quietly at first, finishing the verse: “and it’s the 9th of the month.”
The song finishes and Notis asks, “Why does the song say it’s the 9th of the month?” In Greek, the old saying “it’s the 9th of the month” conveys that the speaker is feeling carefree.
Mrs. Arsi answers, “Because civil servants used to get their paycheck on 9th of the month.”
Constantina asks those sitting near her, “What month is it now?”
A few chime in to say that it’s October, and she continues, “And what months come after October?”
More and more people join in the game and answer, “November, December.”
“Today, October 31st, is World Cities Day,” says Notis. “Let’s list some European capitals.”
The questions and the sequence in which they are asked by the thāllo team are not haphazard. They are part of the method developed by Notis and Constantina based on the principle of associative thinking. Through a series of interrelated questions and activities, such as board games, music, crafts, and sensory activities, the thāllo method aims to encourage mental exercise—as well as fun. Notis says he can tell the difference the program makes for the people in the 12 homes participating in the program, each one of whom he knows by name. All 490 of them. Stress evaporates and confidence and mood improve.
Constantina mentions specific examples. She tells us about Mr. Dimitris, who at first was very distant, almost shy, watching the program from a distance. As time went by, he began to become part of the group. Now, she tells us, he’s the first to answer questions. Mrs. Petroula was far from extroverted, but with the necessary support from the group, she shows signs of coming out of her shell, playing bingo and smiling, especially when the conversation turns to her favorite chocolates. Mr. Aristides loves having Vicky, the thāllo volunteer, around, and his previously dark and hazy paintings now overflow with yellow, red, and green. "It's as if we get to see their best selves come out," says Notis.
The thāllo method was developed experientially by Notis and Constantina, tailored to the needs of the elderly. Their genuine interest in this work comes in part from personal stories in their extended family. The thāllo method was born, then the program, and then a book explaining the method with activities for each day of the year. With a lot of work and with the support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), the program has begun to grow geometrically from 2018 to today as it is implemented in more elderly care homes. The thāllo network now counts 20 regular volunteers, or friends, like Vicky.
The team's plans don’t stop here. They dream of extending the program to facilities outside of the Athens area to benefit as many seniors as possible throughout Greece. At the same time, they are in discussions with a research team from Johns Hopkins University to conduct research to measure the clinical results of the method, while designing a mobile app to help families and caretakers of people living with dementia.
As the thāllo team left for the day, Mr. Dimitris, Mrs. Fotini, Mrs. Petroula, Mrs. Arsi and everyone else waved goodbye with big smiles, and Mr. Stergios showed them out singing “O sole mio” in a strong tenor.
The rain had stopped. Sunbeams appeared through the clouds.
* The words in bold are keywords of the thāllo program’s philosophy.
See an example of the thāllo method.