Alzheimer's art classes foster self-expression, connection

Laurie Allen
Instructor Dawn Petrill leads a Memories in the Making art class.

With brushes in hand and blank canvasses in front of them, a new generation of artists is painting a unique picture of dementia. Twice a month, about 15 people with early-stage Alzheimer's disease gather to paint at the Dublin Road offices of the Alzheimer's Association Central Ohio chapter. During the two hours they paint, frustration and anxiety give way to laughter as instructor Dawn Petrill guides participants step-by-step toward creating and signing a work of their own. “It brings out a different side of them. They really seem to love it,” Petrill says. “There is no wrong way of doing it, and we're all in it together.”

Memories in the Making is a therapeutic program that provides those with Alzheimer's and other dementias a way to express themselves through art. Alzheimer's chapters across the country are using it to improve quality of life for patients and their caregivers, who can attend support groups that meet at the same place and time.

While Alzheimer's relentlessly erases memories, skills and emotions, the acts of making and viewing art can calm the mind, spark creativity and elicit memories. East Columbus resident Jeanine Hufford was 56 when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's two years ago. Her husband drives her to the painting classes. Once the executive director of a large corporate foundation, she is always on the lookout for new ways to stay active mentally and physically. “I just dig in,” she says of her approach to dealing with the diagnosis at such an early age. Asked if she is a painter, she replies, “I'm becoming one! It's a wonderful thing. It's very relaxing, yet your mind has to work, to make choices,” Hufford says.

Although studies of art's effects on the brain are limited, research suggests artistic engagement may help ease common behavioral symptoms of dementia, such as anxiety, agitation and depression. It also may boost mood and engagement while possibly stimulating memory. Caregivers also can benefit from knowing their loved ones are in a safe place doing something they enjoy.

Making art as a group helps address the isolation that comes with dementia and the emotions that arise when a person can't keep up with activities they've done for years, says Michelle Crum, education coordinator for the Alzheimer's Association local chapter.

Sandy and Chuck Costakos both attend Memories in the Making, she for the caregiver support group and he for the painting classes. Chuck, who is retired from OCLC, received the diagnosis early this year. “He has said he wants to live his life and not let the disease control him,” Sandy relates.

But he finds he has more difficulty following directions and putting things together. He doesn't cook much these days, and he had to give up his work as a docent at the Columbus Museum of Art when details began to escape him. Ironically, he worked with dementia patients who tour the museum as part of another Alzheimer's Association program called Sparking Imaginations.

These days, Costakos is on the other side of the artist's brush. “I really have no talent for it,” he laughs, “but when [Petrill] shows you what to do step-by-step, pretty soon it ends up looking like what's it supposed to.” And, he says, “Whatever you do she thinks is great. I've even hung up a couple [pieces] at home.”

The ability to create and appreciate art is relatively preserved in those with Alzheimer's, experts say. Deficits such as impaired memory, learning and language typically don't block the ability to make art, especially in the early to moderate stages. By immersing themselves in the activity, patients also may gain a sense of purpose and well-being.

The local Memories in the Making class was an outgrowth of a memory strategies program offered by a speech and hearing expert at Ohio State University. Jennifer Brello, assistant clinical professor in speech and hearing science, taught the class with graduate students while caregivers attended a support group.

“We wanted to approach this holistically with the idea that while this doesn't solve the problem, certain activities can improve quality of life, and that the earlier you can get involved the better,” Brello says. A chance work association brought Brello and Petrill together. “It was an accident that had an amazing outcome,” Brello says. “It allows everybody to be successful.”

On a recent Friday morning, the class was engaged in painting an owl perched on a tree branch with a moonlit sky as backdrop. While volunteers refilled paint palettes, Petrill gave simple directions, using a painting of hers as a model. She checked in with participants frequently to make sure everyone understood her instructions, bringing the painting directly in front of attendees so they could get a more detailed look.

Throughout the room, the painters laughed with one another or worked in silence. A woman and her daughter worked on two canvasses side-by-side. The woman had arrived at class with a blank expression on her face and seemed somewhat ill at ease. When her daughter joined her in the next chair, her expression softened. She smiled and talked softly with her daughter, who helped steady her hand with her own. Quiet laughter could be heard now and then as they spoke with one another.

Finding non-threatening, stress-free activities to do together can be a challenge for caregivers and patients. Art is a perfect medium because, “you're not having to answer questions. You can be creative rather than focus on the disease,” says Tricia Bingham, association director of programs and services. “It allows reminiscing rather than trying to force a memory.”

Helping families navigate the choppy waters of Alzheimer's disease is gratifying, Brello says. “They look forward to it, and if you walked into a class, in most cases you wouldn't know that these people have early-stage dementia … We try to find what makes us happy. That's the reason I love this, it's a little bright spot.”

Laurie Allen is a freelance writer.

Growing body of research, but no cure

Art therapy and other programs are on the rise as Alzheimer's specialists look to improve the daily lives of patients and caregivers while the search goes on for an effective treatment. So far, drugs have shown only limited benefits.

“There hasn't been that big breakthrough, but we want people to know that more research is going on than ever before,” says Vince McGrail, executive director and CEO of the local Alzheimer's chapter. Lobbying efforts have resulted in federal research funding for Alzheimer's increasing from $450 million annually to $2.3 billion in the last five years, he says.

McGrail says groundbreaking research done in the last few years has found a connection between heart health and brain health, specifically, the relationship between blood pressure and the development of mild cognitive impairment. “The connection between lifestyle and disease is moving faster,” he says.

In Ohio, about 220,000 people are living with Alzheimer's, with that number expected to increase by 14 percent by 2025. For each person diagnosed with Alzheimer's, two to three caregivers are directly impacted.

Alzheimer's Update