Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are utterly devastating to both the person diagnosed with the condition, and to their family and loved ones. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of Alzheimer’s in particular is not just the memory loss, but that the individual is robbed of language ability and skills, the tools necessary for a person to express him- or herself. In 1988 the Orange County, California chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association introduced a fine-arts program for people with dementia called “Memories in the Making.” Simply put, the program is designed to allow persons with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia to express themselves through visual art, specifically painting. I’m in the art room on the second floor of the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts in downtown Joplin, as a small group of people and their caregivers are gathering for a two-hour “Memories in the Making” session.
JESSE McCORMICK: I’m a local artist, and got hired to help people paint.
That’s Jesse McCormick, a professional artist employed by the Alzheimer’s Association to work with the participants every Thursday morning from 10 to noon. As I follow him around the room, he’s busily dabbing gobs of oil paint on Styrofoam dinner plates that are used as palettes by the erstwhile artists.
RANDY: How did you get involved with this?
JESSE: I saw an article in the newspaper that they were starting this up. And I was really interested in it—said they needed a “resident artist” for the program here, and so I called up and they hired me. And it’s just been fun ever since. Hi, Renee.
Soon we’re joined by the Care Consultant from the Greater Missouri Alzheimer’s Association chapter in Springfield, Marci McKie, who travels to Joplin every Thursday morning to sit in on the painting session. Her main focus is on working with people in the early stages of dementia, and she characterizes this group as being in that category. Most weeks Marci simply sits down and paints right with them.
MARCI McKIE: I also try to ask each of them how they’re doing, how things are going, be available for the caregivers. And then I also just try to encourage the painters.
So what does painting and working with visual art do for a dementia sufferer?
MARCI: It is NOT an “art therapy.” Here at the Alzheimer’s Association, what “Memories in the Making” is intended to be is a form of expression--because one thing that gets compromised early in the stages of Alzheimer’s is the ability to communicate. And so, they have found that a lot of times, through the means of art, that ability to express themselves is a lot easier.
In fact, says Marci McKie, researchers have found that many times, artistic expression and abilities are actually enhanced in Alzheimer’s patients, where such abilities weren’t obvious before. There are numerous benefits to involving a dementia patient with the visual arts, according to the Alzheimer’s Association: improved self-esteem; an outlet for emotions; increased attention span and focus; more socialization and reduced isolation; and tapping into pockets of memories that still exist.
MARCI: --which falls back to your self-esteem. Because, there are a lot of things that happen with memory loss that impact that self-esteem: feeling like they’re doing things wrong, making mistakes. And there are no mistakes in art! (laughs)
As I looked around the room at the paintings in progress there was actually a great deal of artistic talent on display—these were some darned good paintings--and not only created by the people with the dementia diagnoses.
MARCI: Originally it was intended for the person with the diagnosis process. But we have found that it’s been a great project for them to do together. A lot of times the caregiver feels like they’re always “the boss,” and the person that has the diagnosis feels like they’re BEING “bossed.” And in this respect they’re doing something mutually, and enjoying each other’s company.
RANDY: Well, I noticed that a lot of the caregivers are equally as involved.
MARCI: They are, they are. And it’s been a great group because of that.
I talked to one lady who’s only been coming to the program with her daughter for a short time, just a few weeks, but she was working on a really nice painting of birds in a tree. Her name is Shirley, and she was there with her daughter.
RANDY: Had you done art before?
SHIRLEY: Oh, yes. I was the “picture lady” for our school, and I’d go to the gallery—Nelson Art Gallery—take pictures and take them to the classroom and explain.
RANDY: This was for elementary school students.
SHIRLEY: Yeah, elementary, and then they moved me up to junior high.
RANDY: So, did you sketch all this out before you started painting?
SHIRLEY: Well, I kind of did. This just sort of came out.
MARCI: I love your bird.
SHIRLEY: (chuckling) Why, that was the hardest part of it, really! But they are pretty good, aren’t they?
RANDY: They’re very good.
Given the success of the “Memories in the Making” program in Joplin, it’s surprising that there isn’t such a program in Springfield yet. Marci McKie of the Alzheimer’s Association agrees.
MARCI: Yes, I think so too. And we’re working on some avenues that we’re hoping to develop, and then hopefully for fiscal year 2016 we can get something on the calendar. If there is anybody in the Springfield community that would like to partner with us, please contact me: (417) 886-2199.