Art class brightens day for Alzheimer’s patients in Union County

Donna Porter dribbled ink onto a half sheet of watercolor paper and gently tilted it, causing the droplets to create a cobweb of spidery black lines.

She then stared at her masterpiece-in-the-making.

"I can find several things in here," the 92-year-old Porter joked, a sheepish smile creeping across her face.

"It's like a Rorschach inkblot test, isn't it?" asked Jean Baldwin, a Union County coordinator for the central Ohio chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

"It's a wet mess is what it is," replied Porter, of Marysville.

"That's why they made paper towels," chimed in Debra Fink Bachelder, a gerontologist and master instructional artist who leads the equal parts art, socialization and respite program for about a half-dozen Union County residents with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

She then held up her ink-stained hands and wiggled her fingers for emphasis.

"You remind me of my children," Porter said, launching into a story about how her kids loved to do art projects when they were little.

A friendly conversation such as this while making art might seems like no big deal. But for people with Alzheimer's or other dementia — whose world often grows more confusing, overwhelming and even frightening as their disease progresses — it can be a day brightener.

It also can reconnect them with the memories of their lives and give them a sense of accomplishment and purpose, said Tricia Bingham, director of programs and services for the local Alzheimer's Association.

"Everybody has creative ability and that doesn't change if they have dementia or Alzheimer's," Bingham said. The beauty is there is no right or wrong way of doing things.

"There's only success," she said.

And it gives family members three precious hours a week away from caregiving responsibilities, Bingham said.

An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's, including 30,000 in central Ohio. With no way to treat, cure or even slow the disease, Alzheimer's kills more people each year than breast and prostate cancers combined and disproportionally affects women, she said.

"Memories in the Making" is one of 15 pilot creative-aging programs statewide that received funding from the Ohio Arts Council. Offered every Wednesday at the Brookdale Marysville senior-living community, the program will run through the end of June.

"Not only has it been a wonderful socialization opportunity, which is so critical for individuals with dementia, but this program has also provided mental stimulation," Bingham said.

Once Memories in the Making wraps up, the Alzheimer's Association will go back to offering an existing program called "Retreat" on a bimonthly basis. It is similar to the pilot program but isn't led by a trained art therapist.

Studies show that art therapy gives back to Alzheimer's patients what the disease has taken away.

It stimulates the senses, can trigger or clarify dormant or fuzzy memories and encourages conversation, Bachelder said. In many ways, the art becomes their voice.

It's also about creating a place where people with cognitive disorders can feel valued and at home.

"Maybe they've had to give up the car keys, move in with a child or don't always remember their names, but when they come here, they're a noted artist; they're celebrated," Bachelder said.

Miriam Eyerman, an 84-year-old Brookdale Marysville resident, said she loves coming to the sessions.

"I look forward to it every week," she said. "It's very relaxing."

Wanting to do her best, Eyerman couldn't decide recently whether her stained-glass window project with ink and water colors needed anything else.

"It's beautiful, Miriam," gushed Bachelder.

"I guess," Eyerman said, sounding not quite so certain.

"Are you having a good time? That's all that really matters," Bachelder said reassuringly.

A class-clown of sorts, Larry Winner, 79, of Marysville, joked that if he added a tail to one of his ink blotches it could pass for a hen with a "four-legged something or other."

That left everyone laughing, some so much they had tears streaming down their faces.

After the class, Diana Salyers, 63, of Marysville, said the program has been a godsend for her 72-year-old husband, Paris.

"When he comes home, he's more stimulated, creative and his speech seems to be better," she said.

Another benefit: Some of his art, including a "really beautiful cardinal," now graces their home, she said.

You can visit the artists and about 40 pieces of their work from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. today at Brookdale Marysville, 1565 London Avenue in Marysville.

epyle@dispatch.com

@EncarnitaPyle


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