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Paint me a memory

March 14, 2016
by Beth Thomas Hertz
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For some, a picture is worth more than any words
“God's World” by Betty Stanke, who says, "My life started out in Idaho. I was chomping through the natural grasses. My folks were from Ireland and growing crops, beans and peppers."

Art can provide a way for people with dementia to express themselves even after their memories and words have begun to fade away. Artistic activities give residents an outlet for emotional responses and can boost their self-esteem, help them relax, reduce their isolation and increase their attention span.

“For people with dementia, verbal interactions may remain at the level of ‘social niceties only,’ but art mixes tactile activities with emotion, engaging neuropathological pathways in a different way,” says Michele Tarsitano-Amato, director of creative arts and a therapy/dementia specialist at Kendal at Oberlin, a continuing care retirement community in Oberlin, Ohio. “It lets them go deeper and can be a bridge to social interactions and allow them to engage and contribute.”

“Wedding Day” by Bea Burnkrant, who says, "The wedding was June 7, 1945, approximately. I wore white--not stark white, cream. Think of the prettiest flower you can think of and that's what we had at our wedding."

Long-term care facilities can incorporate art into residents’ lives in many ways, including through art therapy, artistic creativity programs and experiences that allow residents to interact with existing works of art by visiting museums and galleries.

Art therapy

As a board-certified art therapist, Tarsitano-Amato uses different art media to help residents meet therapeutic goals. For example, residents who are struggling with spatial issues can benefit from working with a 3-D medium such as clay. Residents with finger dexterity or sequencing challenges can benefit from weaving activities in which they work through a specific pattern.

"I create a plan of care to help target specific needs, like a physical therapist would for people with mobility issues," she explains.

Tarsitano-Amato sometimes has residents work on projects as a group, which can offer the added benefit of social interactions as each person works on an aspect of the project that aligns with his or her goals. One example was a 3-foot-by-6-foot lighted stained glass creation made by residents about two years ago. It took the group about a year to complete the project, which now hangs in the community center.

“The project gave residents many opportunities, including social interaction, dexterity exercises, spatial relationship work and team work,” she says.

She adapts her art therapy strategy as a person’s dementia progresses. For example, a resident may lose her ability to work well with ceramics and may not want to produce something that seems unsatisfactory. Tarsitano-Amato may suggest she switch to a two-dimensional medium, such as making a collage. “We adjust what they do so they can feel successful,” she says. “Sometimes, a more forgiving medium makes it easier for them to enjoy the process.”

Memories in the Making program

The Alzheimer’s Association’s Memories in the Making program is an opportunity for people with dementia to express themselves in a safe, fun environment. Lisa Steffen, Colorado program coordinator for Memories in the Making, oversees the program in about 100 care communities across the state. She says the program helps the residents be more engaged and communicate in nonverbal ways.

Kendal at Oberlin residents created a stained glass artwork as a team.

The program is run by facility volunteers and staff members trained in working with people with dementia and in how to use art materials effectively in this setting. Sessions usually are held weekly for about an hour and include groups of five to 10 people with dementia.

The individualized approach allows each person to choose an object to use as his or her inspiration for artistic expression, instead of having a one-size-fits-all approach in which everyone is painting the same vase of flowers.

“It’s empowering for them to choose what they want to work on,” Steffen says. “The experience of having dementia involves giving up so much autonomy and having so many decisions made for you. The process of letting them choose an object and then make something tangible gives them a feeling of achievement that can be rare for them.”

Having individual inspirations is also practical, since it allows the object to be placed in the person’s direct line of sight. People with vision problems might not be able to clearly see an object that is sitting in a central location, she explains.

The facilitators try to tune in to the residents at each step and encourage them how to proceed, but they never work on the art projects themselves. All work is done solely by the participants. The Memories in the Making process includes a journaling, in which the facilitator will record some of the artist’s comments and observations about the work in pencil on the back of the painting.

“Sometimes things will come out spontaneously, but the facilitator also purposefully engages them to discuss their work by asking open-ended questions,” Steffen says.