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When Memory Fails From Dementia, Art Is the Key to the Soul

I worked for decades as a licensed clinical social worker in gerontology and met many people with severe memory impairment. One of the most difficult issues was finding ways to communicate. Memory loss does not mean a person is unreachable. It does not mean they cannot express emotion. It does mean, as I see it, that their life is more internal, and, in some ways, expressed largely through symbols rather than words. I know this as a social worker and I know this having had a parent with dementia.

Memories in the Making is an art program for people with Alzheimer's or a related form of dementia. I took the training course for providers last year to learn how to use it in practice and because I wanted to learn new ways of approaching my own internal life. 

Memories in the Making is intended for people with dementia. Dementia is caused by a long list of diseases including Alzheimer's diseaseLewy Body disease, vascular dementia, Huntington's disease, frontotemporal dementia, traumatic brain injuries, and others. People with mild cognitive impairment can also benefit from creating ar t. Memories in the Making has been implemented all across the United States, and in Spain, Ecuador, and Australia.

Note the name of this unique program. It is actually the doing, the creating, and the making of art that evokes memories for the person—the artist. Memories are important, particularly to a person with dementia. Memories, in a way, hold the emotional truth and experience of the individual. For a caregiver, talking about memories, and letting the person reminisce about the past, about the way things were, can be soothing, inclusive and loving. Try it. 

Still, one of the challenges family caregivers face is planning meaningful activities that will help the person they are caring for to be engaged and content. If you have a loved one with dementia or other brain impairment, you might think about trying to color or paint with the individual. The end result is not important; it is the process that matters. Talking, listening, affirming, being with the individual and, likewise, feeling their presence in different ways than when their memory was better, is the purpose.

I emailed with Ben Allen, Memories in the Making Coordinator at Alzheimer's Orange County, which holds the national trademark to this wonderful program. The staff is currently working on making certification training for care providers available remotely.  

Meredith: How did Memories in the Making begin?

BEN: It began in 1998 when Selly Jenny wanted to use art as a way of engaging and communicating with her mother who had Alzheimer's disease. Selly had an art background and believed that art could be a way for people with dementia to express themselves even if their ability to speak had been lost to the disease. She partnered with LaDoris "Sam" Heinly, who had a background in art therapy, and together they created what is now the signature art program of Alzheimer's Orange County.

Meredith: Is paint used? Pencils?

BEN: The medium we recommend is watercolor because watercolor paints are non-toxic and if any paint gets on clothing, it can be easily washed out. And if the painting isn't turning out the way they want, we simply get another sheet of watercolor paper and encourage them to start again, or find another image to work from.

Meredith: Please describe a session. 

BEN: Memories in the Making art sessions are held in a wide variety of settings including memory care facilities, adult day centers, libraries, and senior centers. The sessions typically last for an hour to an hour-and-a-half. Caregivers and family members can attend. 

The art facilitator's primary role is to create a friendly and inviting atmosphere where artists can relax and have fun as they paint. It's important to have the art room and materials all set up first. We recommend art facilitators have a collection of images the artists can choose from to use as their inspiration. Old wall calendars with the pages divided are great. Group them into categories: flowers, landscapes, animals, etc. And that makes it easy for the artists to browse and select.

Meredith: What if someone can't get started?

BEN: We always keep in mind that the artist may have a limited ability to engage in conversation or even answer simple questions. If an artist has trouble getting started, the facilitator might sit down next to the artist and paint side-by-side using the same inspiration. Open-ended questions are the best.

Meredith: Do you play music? If so, why?

BEN: Music is important for several reasons. It creates a comfortable mood and, when people hear music they grew up listening to, it brings up memories that are associated with positive emotions, which facilitates reminiscing and creativity. Often, people whose dementia is advanced and have become completely non-verbal will sing along with music from their youth or they'll start talking again while listening to their favorite music.

Memories in the Making isn't about teaching art; it's about using art to make a connection with the artist and enabling them to express themselves any way they want.  

I'm reminded of my favorite documentary, "Alive Inside" about the power of music for people with dementia. Have you seen it? It's a beautiful story. I highly recommend it.

Meredith: Art and nonverbal activities are wonderful because they let us bypass words and drop into a less-filtered means of expression. There is nothing that requires explaining, which, to me, is of great value and a service to the self. What's your take on why art is such a wonderful medium when working with individuals with memory impairment. 

BEN: A less-filtered means of expression. I like that. You know, the process of creating art requires that we simply play. As adults, we often lose our ability to play, to explore that we had when we were children. Over time, we've gotten in the habit of filtering our expressions to meet what we think other people expect. I think it was Dr. Suess who said, "Adults are just obsolete children." That is, when we lose our sense of curiosity and the willingness to let go and see what happens when we play, we lose a big part of what makes us human. 

Interestingly, people with dementia often have a greater sense of freedom, and an eagerness for self-expression. It's not unusual for artists to say things like, "You know, I used to be an engineer, but now I'm an artist!" And you can hear the enthusiasm and satisfaction they have in what's become a new occupation.

That new-found occupation and sense of purpose are big benefits to the artist. Plus, the creative process is calming, which improves the quality of life for the artist and everyone else in their lives. 

In some cases, especially when an artist has become non-verbal, we learn things about them through their art that they can't tell us verbally. Memories seem to float to the surface and become verbalized. 

One of my co-workers coined a phrase that describes Memories in the Making really well: "When words fail, art speaks." Another of my coworkers was looking at some newly framed paintings and said, "They speak life, not dementia." I guess that's the bottom line, Memories in the Making helps us all see that there is life to be lived even after a diagnosis of dementia.

Want more info?Check with your local Alzheimer's Association, adult day health care center, or senior center to find out if Memories in the Making is available in your city or state, or contact your local department on aging. If your loved one resides in assisted living, ask if it's offered, or might be offered there. Or, email the education department at Alzheimer's Orange County at learn@alzoc.org.

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