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March 11, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, March 11, 2005

Painting Memories Painting Memories (March 11, 2005)

Art is therapy for Alzheimer's patients

By Diana Reynolds Roome

In a sunny alcove with cherry and apple blossoms outside the window, Joan is copying a calendar photo of a tropical beach. She has painted wide swathes of turquoise and blue on the top half of the paper laid out before her. Every week, she makes a picture of water. Now she's resting and smiling, content to look at what she's done.

Opposite her at the table, Peter bends over a design that he makes up as he goes along. His brush leaves a trail of multicolored squiggly lines as he dips it rapidly into the paints and on to the paper. When asked what it depicts, he replies, "Totally abstract," then "trees, forest. It's a mess," but he smiles as he dips his brush back into the pan of green watercolor.

Just down the hall, one of Peter's framed paintings hangs on the wall. It shows a number of buildings and other structures, most of them labeled in a careful script with the names of colors or words like "Junk," which he has written three times. His painting is also signed, like all the other pictures hanging here. Peter was an engineer in his younger days, and Joan was a journalist. Now they both live in the assisted care living facility for those with Alzheimer's and dementia, at Palo Alto Commons.

The paintings on the wall and the art class in progress are the result of the Memories in the Making, a therapeutic art program run by the Alzheimer's Association, now in its fourth year. It is designed for patients with no art background and at almost any stage of Alzheimer's.

Alzheimer's and dementia can rob their victims' worlds of color and detail. Painting is a powerful way to retrieve those things -- both for the artists and their loved ones.

Six residents attend today, chosen according to their level of energy and expressed interest. They sit around a table, absorbed in the images they are creating. Bea, in a wheelchair, drops off to sleep from time to time, then wakes up to resume the task of copying the petals from a print of a deep purple clematis. So far, she has dabbed two arcs in the lower right corner of her paper. Lauren Schwartz, the volunteer group facilitator, and Erika Mendoza, a staff activity leader, remind her to pick up the brush and try a new color, offering suggestions and encouragement.

"Some people will come down the hall and don't know what they're going to. Then all of a sudden, they're engaged," said Schwartz, who has been running the weekly class for a year and a half, and is finishing a master's degree in transformative arts. "This seems to bring out some individuality, because it's so totally expressive and personal. Some don't talk much, but this activates their imagination and takes them to another place. It seems to tap into their spiritual side."

Memories in the Making classes are held at 15 sites from San Francisco to San Jose, and two more classes will be added this year. The program is designed to offer a vehicle for communication, self-expression and rediscovery. It also helps replace some of the skills that dementia takes away, said Toni Morley, an art and family therapist and coordinator of the program.

"Watercolor is a very fluid medium that taps into memories from the past, and brings up pieces of people's past history," said Morley. She tells how one man, who didn't communicate verbally, chose a picture of a fish from images on the table, and meticulously copied it for over an hour. When his wife saw what he had done she wept, explaining that he had once collected tropical fish.

"Painting often provides a way for the family to communicate," said Morley. "When a person has lost their cognitive abilities, they may still have a wealth of creative material inside. Painting is a way for it to come out. Sometimes whole pieces of people's history come back."

In a recent exhibition put on by Memories in the Making program, one painting depicted a memory of a drive home from Yosemite, with mustard fields and prune trees in the rain. While painting an abundance of multicolored leaves, a retired rancher told stories of family life on the ranch. A frail woman who carried a baby doll and hadn't spoken in class repeatedly painted squares, with different colored squares inside. When asked about them one day, she suddenly said, "Yes, I used to make quilts."

Painting is a boost to self-esteem, as creations are held up and admired, and later often framed, hung and exhibited. It also helps people connect to their previous accomplishments, said Stephanie Fielden, who facilitates the Memories in the Making class at the Avenidas Senior Day Health Center. (This facility for the frail elderly, now in Palo Alto, will move to Mountain View towards the end of this year.)

"When people lose all kinds of skills and abilities, here's a chance they have to be creative again," said Fielden. One man who doesn't speak, for example, is "very good at painting and one of the least hesitant with the brush. He always initials his work, and there's a pride in that. [Others] may not remember their work, but we confirm that it's theirs and encourage them to continue."

At Palo Alto Commons, Peggy applies several shades of color to a large pink orchid, and adds yellow for the center.

"I feel I should dress it up a bit," she says, "but I'll ruin it." Her neighbor at the table, who is drawing the outline of a flower in pencil, turns and admires the pink orchid.

"It's beautiful," she says. When Peggy continues to criticize her own work, Peter tells her she can strengthen her talent by doing more art. Schwartz finds a picture Peggy did last week, of a flame-colored tulip, and holds it up for all to see.

"I did that?" she asks, delighted. "Now I'm looking at it, I realize it looks a lot better than when I first did it."

The art classes stir up conversation and build a special camaraderie, said Lenora Park, director of the center. "It's comfortable, familiar, and quiet. People who don't normally sit for a period will be engaged for 45 minutes."

Some people paint fairly quickly and boldly, while others continue working on a piece for weeks, Fielden explained. Her role is to provide inspirational pictures, art materials and ideas, and sometimes step-by-step instruction, especially if a participant becomes fixated on stirring the brush in the water or repeatedly going over the same area of paper. However, she never puts anything on the paper itself. Facilitators, who are given brief training and are always accompanied by a member of the care staff, do not need to have an art background though Fielden, for example, has a degree in graphic design.

A research study, Emotion in Dementia Patients: Effects of a Fine Arts Group on Well-Being, Dupart, Krisztal, Long & Morley, 2003, demonstrates that people engaged in the art activity are less depressed, more focused, more social, and experience less anger, sadness and apathy than those participating in a current events program.

"One of the challenges [of Alzheimer's and dementia] is the loss of connectivity -- memories, the past and activities. The art helps people reconnect to the past and to parts of themselves, emotionally and socially," said William Fisher, director of the Alzheimer's Association Northern California branch, headquartered in Mountain View.

The Memories in the Making program has held three annual exhibits of participants' work, and the art is on display at several sites where classes are held. On March 4, the second annual Art Auction raised more than $30,000 for Alzheimer's programs. On April 6, Advocacy Day, some of the art will hang on either side of Governor Schwarzenegger's office in Sacramento.
For more information, see:, or call: 650-962-8111.
Names of patients with Alzheimer's or dementia have been changed to preserve anonymity.

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