Bridging the gap: Creating memories through art for people with dementia

Valentine's Day

Alex Sharp recalled one of her first aha moments about how art-making directly affects communication, creative self-expression and remembrance, especially for people with cognitive impairment.

During her first year as a volunteer at the James L. West Alzheimer’s Center in Fort Worth, Sharp met Ms. Sarah, a newcomer to the center. Ms. Sarah was aware of her surroundings but still shy and not open with her feelings.

“She painted a bird,” Sharp said. “I told her how pretty it looked. ‘What would you like to call it?’ I asked. She said, ‘The Daring Bird. He doesn’t look afraid. He looks like he is moving on.’

“It gave me chills,” Sharp said. “That’s what this is about. This woman was able to communicate her feeling of being afraid through art. By painting a bird she expressed the feeling of flying away from her fears, of moving on. Art can facilitate such communication and cognition. I’m blessed to be able to help people communicate and share their memories and feelings. I meet them in the moment where they are now.”

- FWBP Digital Partners -

Sharp, 24, a Fort Worth native and graduate of Texas Christian University with a degree in art education, has volunteered at James L. West for four years, facilitating a weekly Memories in the Making art class for its residents.

Developed by the Alzheimer’s Association for people with Alzheimer’s disease and related forms of dementia, Memories in the Making (MIM) inspires, assists and encourages people to paint their thoughts, emotions and memories. The program is conducted as a weekly activity in dementia care communities, facilitated by activity staff who are specially trained by the Alzheimer’s Association. The process of painting with watercolors stimulates brain health and results in many beautiful works of art that give a glimpse of what it is like to live with memory loss. The art becomes the voice for people with memory loss. Each painting produced is an authentic expression of that person at that time in his or her life.

“The connections I’ve made at the center have been life changing. They’ve totally rocked my world,” she said. “Seeing the benefits that art has on someone experiencing Alzheimer’s has shaped my perspective on how I see art as therapy.”

Sharp, who suffers from social anxiety disorder, is using her experience at James L. West not only to overcome her own fears but also to pursue a career as an art therapist.

- Advertisement -

“I had no art therapy during my treatment,” she said. “In middle school I found art as an outlet to express myself and I realized the power art can have on people with communication issues or disabilities. Being around therapists so long made me really want to do that because they help so many people. My passion is people and art. This field combines those two loves.”

Sharp was accepted into the graduate art therapy program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of 25 students chosen from more than 100 applicants. But she has had to put grad school on hold after one of her scholarships fell through. Also an accomplished photographer and printmaker, Sharp recently began teaching art at Highland Park High School but still plans to become an art therapist.

When words fail

More than 5 million people are living with Alzheimer’s in the United States. There is no way to prevent, cure or slow its progression. The North Central Texas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association is hoping to reduce the risk of dementia and extend the quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s by offering Memories in the Making.

- Advertisement -

The chapter launched MIM in February 2009, and since then 53 communities have joined the program, with 22 communities currently active. Lisa Buck, local coordinator of the program, estimates it has served 2,000 people. She has trained 237 facilitators such as Sharp and since 2013 has given two or three MIM workshops a year that are open to all activity professionals, whether or not they participate in the program.

Buck views Memories in the Making as an activity rather than a therapy.

“Memories in the Making is therapeutic, but the developers of the program have been really clear that it is not art therapy. Art therapy is a form of treatment in which specially trained art therapists work toward improving an individual’s mental or emotional health,” Buck explained. “There is no treatment for Alzheimer’s disease; the best we can do is provide the kind of support that maximizes the health, comfort and well-being of those with the disease.”

Since 2009, Buck has scanned and catalogued 638 MIM paintings. She said painting restores a means of creative self-expression to those who have lost other avenues. “Painting can be a form of play, problem-solving, conversing about oneself, entertainment, relaxation or work – all activities that are fundamentally important to most people but that are lost as the disease progresses,” she said. “Although the process of painting is more important than the finished product, the paintings serve as happy records of the time spent.”

Enhancing the quality of life

Sharp was introduced to the James L. West Alzheimer’s Center and the Memories in the Making program by Amanda Allison, associate professor and art education coordinator in TCU’s art education department. Allison, who received her doctorate in art and disability, created a therapeutic arts course in 2014 for all TCU students, especially those with service-oriented majors such as speech pathology, education, psychology, child development and counseling. Students in this class learn to design and teach art lessons that are therapeutic in nature.

The department also has developed alliances with dozens of local agencies and organizations, including James L. West, that use the arts to enhance the quality of life for their audiences. There is no other program like this in any other Texas university, according to Allison.

“We do not perform art therapy with the audiences with whom we work,” Allison said. “We provide an art prompt that allows room for reflection and expression. Most importantly, we sit beside the art maker and affirm them during their experience. It’s affirming parts of their lives that are important to them. The arts express the inexpressible.”

Sharp originally wanted to provide art therapy to people with special needs and had never been around anyone with cognitive disabilities until she visited James L. West. While she’s now teaching full time, she hopes to continue her art sessions at the center.

“I fell in love with Memories in the Making. It resonated with me. I fell in love with my experience there and the people I work with,” she said. “The goal that I want my residents to achieve through creating art is a sense of empowerment. I want my residents to have dignity, feel valued, feel purposeful, and to feel confident expressing themselves.

“The disease is viewed as such a limiting disability, but I want to focus on what is still there. I want them to recognize their abilities and what they do have at this time in their lives. They have so much to still offer the world. It is our duty to ensure that the people living with Alzheimer’s receive the care that they deserve, and to make sure their natural abilities to improve and enjoy life are not overlooked.”

Present Journey

A selection of personal paintings created by residents with dementia from six area care communities in Northeast Tarrant County that participate in Memories in the Making is on display through August at the Palace Arts Center, 300 S. Main St. in Grapevine.

“Present Journey: Paintings by People with Dementia” opened Aug. 18 and runs through Aug. 30.

The exhibition is sponsored by Silverado and includes works by residents from Brookdale of Oak Hollow, Brookdale of Watauga, Dancing River of Grapevine, Grand Brook Memory Care, Silverado of Southlake and U.S. Memory Care.

Alzheimer’s Association Fort Worth