“I did those paintings, the ones framed on the wall,” My Love would tell anyone who came to our home long enough to be in the living room. “And those on the other wall, too,” he added, pointing proudly to another grouping of his artwork.
I loved them. I held the memory from when My Love painted each one. I had been there. I framed them for him and for me.
As seasoned members of the weekly Alzheimer Society Creative Expressions classes, attending all but the first session nearly five years earlier, we have learned what an amazing gift of respite, anxiety intervention, and relaxation this time has been.
We have experienced the value that art and music can have in the life of one with Alzheimer’s disease and a caregiver.
While not a traditional art class, the program was created to ‘keep art in mind’ and (I believe) has been very successful for both the caregiver and their loved one for social interaction, and as a respite for the caregiver.
As a former art teacher, I still love being around creative minds. When the facilitator, an art therapist, introduced artwork of the masters to the class, it was amazing to hear the depth of conversations the topics generated. Those with memory loss and their caregivers seemed totally present, in the moment, and made valued contributions to the discussions.
It was even more exciting to see the diverse projects that those in the same room, participating in the same discussions, seeing the same videos and hearing the same instructions, would produce. Add to that, working with various media – paint, string, clay, chalk or pastels, markers, cloth, and specific or unusual materials – the results generally were uniquely different. The results that emerged while we were working and talking were so entirely individual and remarkable.
Let’s say the topic was butterflies. We might have talked about Monarch butterflies…their migratory patterns, their home in Canada, their destination of Mexico, and especially their unique markings. We would have looked at butterfly photos and likely watched a short butterfly video. Then we would have had a discussion among members who were inspired to contribute. Soon the creative process would get underway and the papers began to fill with paint and color.
One person might paint a group of butterflies, with lots and lots of color. Another would fill a page with one large monarch. Someone else would have drawn three solid color shapes and cut them out to hang as a mobile. Someone else might have filled their page, with the background color flooding over white oil pastel outlines of butterflies. And one other might have drawn with pencil only. Such diverse imaginations were stirred during the initial discussions, and the eventual representations displayed amazing range of results on paper for all to see.
Hidden creative appetites always emerged…everyone exhibited imaginative traits they were so sure they did not have!
When My Love picked up a paintbrush or reached for the oil pastel sticks, he seemed to go into another zone. Even the thought of ‘doing art’ momentarily took his attention away from his health issues. And when he was in the production phase, sometimes I had to repeat what I said a couple of times to get his attention. For that short time, his brain seemed to be hard at work, winning out over ‘misbehaving’ plaques and tangles.
My Love had a ‘thing’ for trees and water. It was almost a trademark. We in the class came to expect that. When he’d hold up his artwork at the end of two hours, there would be some reference to a tree or stream and sky with birds.
To make the class experience more pleasant, the therapist played music in the background. We in that session could not have been in a more calm atmosphere. Among friends who gathered together each week, those with memory loss felt a sense of safety in an atmosphere without right or wrong. In an environment that allowed freedom of expression, verbally and artistically, the class members felt secure knowing their inspired imagination could come forth without criticism or judgment. We all loved being there each week.
That class produced the same good feelings for every one of us.
The Alzheimer Society of Brant, Haldimand Norfolk, Hamilton Halton states on their website, www.alzhn.ca, regarding Creative Expressions: “The goal is to find some personal connection to the art and share with the group through the art…The goal is not the end product but the process and the connection with other participants.”
I have tried to duplicate the scene at home so that My Love could paint and perhaps eliminate his anxiety attacks, but I just could not replicate those social connections that seemed to play a significant part in the story.
There was a time, before his first three weeks in hospital two years ago, when My Love would paint every afternoon at home. I put on his favorite John Barry themes, and he seemed inspired. He found pictures he wanted to copy, or had ideas come into his mind, and he would paint them with intense focus, even if it took more than one day.
I cannot explain what happened, but after coming home from his three-week hospital stay, he no longer wanted to paint at home. I put the music on. He listened. I put the paints out. He passed by them. There was something very positive about painting among a gathering of souls in Creative Expressions that made it a desirable atmosphere for him.
He never had an anxiety attack on days when he painted at home. Even though an attack might begin on our drive to class, he never had an anxiety attack during the class. It was an incredible intervention into his typical anxiety routine.
After his hospital stay, his anxiety attacks returned. I tried to recreate the scenes where he loved to paint at home. It never happened.
Although he told me “I will one day,” he has not painted at home again.
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Each day do something to make others smile and your heart sing!
“Art and Music as a brief intervention” Copyright © 2019 Judith Allen Shone