by Lynn S. Schwebach
As an artist, I thought a painting class with Alzheimer’s patients an appropriate way to apply my skills as a volunteer while spending time with my mom who suffers with dementia, but I quickly discovered that a Memories in the Making class entails much more than simply painting colorful pictures.
Unlike traditional art classes, the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado Memories in the Making (MIM) class does not stress the finished product but the experience the artists have as they create, and the memories that their painted images unlock and bring to the surface.
Sometimes no words
The underlying reason for MIM, however, does parallel what drives most visual artists: self-expression. Those who suffer with dementia lose the ability to find and use words, so the painting process employed in MIM helps release emotions, frustrations and memories trapped within dementia patients.
By sitting down once a week with memory care or nursing home residents, those trained in MIM are able to help patients communicate with colors, lines and symbols. The class does not emphasize traditional drawing skills but emphasizes images — most abstract — as a means for telling others who they were and who they still are. Unlike arts and crafts activities, each MIM painting is unique — an expression of the individual artist.
“Even after people with dementia have lost the ability to use words, they are able to create paintings that reflect their thoughts, emotions and memories in a manner that is expressive and beautiful,” according to the Alzheimer’s Association. “Art can become their voice.”
Over the past 7 months, I have heard participants in MIM classes suddenly talk of their children when they were young, of countries of origin, of barns and tractors that they and family members drove, and the experience of marching in the army during World War II. Because my mom lives with these individuals and I observe them almost daily, I know that these communications are not the norm.
Also during my first months of volunteering, I noticed the impressive quality of the art supplies the MIM facilitator used. This included 140-pound acid-free, cold-press watercolor paper, artist’s watercolor brushes, pencils, markers and high-quality pan watercolors such as Pelikan, Talons and Lyra.
After going through training by the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado I learned that MIM care communities only use quality watercolor products because these products give artists the best outcome — often a treasured painting that families or organizations want to save.
The trainer talked of a painting done in the early years (early 1990s) of MIM in Orange County, California, where an artist in a MIM group surprised everyone with a colorful painting in memory of her family’s journey west in a covered wagon when she was 3 years old. She drew her brother and herself under the wagon along with detailed directional signs and symbols. It was a painting they wanted to keep, yet because they used cheap newsprint and construction paper, the artwork faded and yellowed. From that point forward, MIM classes only use artist-quality materials.
Stories form identities
One of my favorite aspects of each class involves hearing stories like the covered wagon journey. Hearing the stories reminds me why I’m an artist. Stories comprise each of us and our humanity. They inform each of my paintings.
Somewhere toward the middle or end of the painting, I begin asking the MIM artist to share with me what his or her painting means. Sometimes this takes some prodding and creative questions to get responses. It might start with a the simple question of “what should we name the painting?”
If the artist has a story to tell, we write it in pencil on the back of the painting in pencil. In addition, we write his or name, the date, facility where completed, the facilitator’s name and a directional arrow indicating the top of the painting.
But even if a specific memory isn’t brought to the surface by the painting, MIM initiates so many other benefits, including giving dementia patients an opportunity to socialize, and stimulation that improves mental alertness, visual memory, concentration and imagination.
Activities like MIM are central to addressing the symptoms of a disease that hasn’t a cure. The Alzheimer’s Association states that Alzheimer’s “is not a normal part of aging. Alzheimer’s is a progressive and fatal brain disease.”
In the U.S. alone, 5.5 million people live with its debilitating effects. According to the Association, someone develops Alzheimer’s every 66 seconds. It predicts that by 2050, up to 14 million Americans will have the disease.
Most of us will have a family member, friend or acquaintance suffer with Alzheimer’s. MIM does not teach but provides a tool for communication for families and professional caregivers to learn more about family members and patients, and how best to treat those suffering with this disease.
It is one of the most rewarding art classes I have taught. And like most volunteer positions, the experience has given me much more than I can possibly offer. It has provided me with education on this disease, which affects my family and which I knew so little about. It affirms my belief that creativity is important to everyone and that its benefits go well beyond completing the perfect piece of art. And it adds to my story, one where connection and listening go hand in hand with a meaningful existence.
I took the Memories in the Making training class sponsored by the Colorado Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. To learn more, call the Association at (303) 813-1669.
Lynn Schwebach’s blog is bravelycreative.