Strolling through the Nicolaysen Art Museum last week, Della Reidt and Zola Bolin looked at a silk scarf they painted together earlier that afternoon.
They didn’t think the piece looked very good while they were working on it at the monthly “Here and Now: A Dementia-Specific Art Program” at the museum. But they had fun anyway, they said.
This was the first time they’d seen the piece since it dried. They admired the fall leaves they’d painted in vivid yellow and red colors.
“That really turned out pretty nice,” Bolin said.
Wyoming Dementia Care offers the art class for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related illnesses along with their caregivers, said the organization’s executive director and program manager Dani Mandelstam-Guerttman.
The show is a way to reach out to those who may need services for dementia, as well as promote awareness and the need to support people living with dementia and their caregivers in the community, Mandelstam-Guerttman said.
The event also celebrated the class’ participants and the art they created, she added.
Art therapist and dementia specialist Michele Tarsitano-Amato helped create the art program as a mentor for the American Society on Aging. She traveled from Cleveland, Ohio, to teach that day’s silk-painting class and provide professional development for the local leaders of the program.
“What they’re doing is amazing, because they’re actually creating an environment for individuals to engage in something,” Tarsitano-Amato said. “Look at all of the lovely art that they’ve created.”
The purpose of the classes isn’t the art created, but rather the benefits of the creative process. The artists smiled, talked and laughed with their families as they admired their work hung in the gallery. Their array of projects included clay teacups with saucers, paintings, collages and clay pieces pressed with colorful stones, shells and other textured objects.
Lu Walthall found the stand with her artwork as she browsed the show with her daughter, Hope Herbst. It was the first time Herbst had seen what her mother created in the classes.
Walthall picked up a ceramic animal she’d sculpted a few months ago. She wasn’t sure what kind of animal it was. But Herbst spotted the tail and guessed it was a cat, because she’d owned many cats through her life.
“I like cats, dogs, horses and some people,” Walthall said, laughing with her daughter.
They admired the bright colors she’d brushed onto canvas and clay as well as a painting of a night scene with foreground scenery made of real pebbles and dried plants.
“I love to do things and have them come out unusual, different,” Walthall said.
She mostly likes the art classes because it gives her something to do that’s relaxing and fun, she added.
Her mother has always been artistic and enjoyed cross-stitching, Herbst said.
“I think she’s expressive, and this is a way for all of them to express themselves,” she said. “There’s a part of them that was lost, and this brings it out.”
Process and strengths
Wyoming Dementia Care began offering “Here and Now: A Dementia-Specific Art Program” because of the benefits art can provide to help people with dementia, Mandelstam-Guerttman said.
Many people become isolated after a diagnosis, so the classes give them a chance to socialize, Mandelstam-Guerttman said. It’s also a way for those with dementia and their loved ones to interact outside the roles of caregiving. Several of the caregivers create projects as well, which gives them a relaxing outlet, she added.
There are many therapeutic benefits to art itself, including a way for those who’ve lost some of their language skills to express themselves, Mandelstam-Guerttman said. They experience colors, images, tactile sensations and smells. Completing projects gives them a feeling of accomplishment, she said.
Mandelstam-Guerttman leads the classes with two other instructors at the Nicolaysen. Tarsitano-Amato provided professional development to them during her visit funded by a grant through the Wyoming Arts Council, which also helps fund the classes, she said.
The local instructors honed skills, including ways to help the participants focus more on enjoying the process rather than the outcome, Mandelstam-Guerttman said.
Art is a way to engage the brain with tactile and visual stimulation through the art materials, Tarsitano-Amato said.
“As an artist myself and as an art therapist, it is that idea that you can lose yourself in that process,” she said. “You can relax and bring down your heart rate and activate parts of your brain and creativity that aren’t normally activated.”
Art is also a creative outlet for people to use their strengths and to gain a sense of mastery and a connection with themselves, Tarsitano-Amato said.
She helped design classes that focus less on verbal direction, because processing verbal direction breaks down as Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases progresses, for example.
When she works on class programs that will benefit people with dementia, she thinks about what tasks are involved, she said.
The body often remembers actions without connecting them with words. Most people have rolled dough for baking or cutting out shapes with a cookie cutter, for instance. The clay projects incorporated those familiar movements.
“So we’re trying to tap into past memories, tap into past experiences,” Tarsitano-Amato said. “We’re trying to pull out life stories of things that they’ve done and engaged with and can share.”
With the silk scarf painting class, she introduced the idea of working in pairs or small groups.
“As an art therapist, I can help create the environment and support so that this interaction without verbalization can happen,” she said.
During that class, Reidt and Bolin agreed they wanted to paint fall leaves on their scarf. One dipped the brush in red and the other painted in yellow.
The two women talked as they worked, but they didn’t delegate who would do what, she said.
“They just did it,” Tarsitano-Amato said. “They created art and had a conversation while creating.”
The pair thought the piece looked like a mess as they worked, Bolin said.
The two grinned recalling their day in class.
“We sat there and talked a little bit and we laughed,” Reidt said. “And then painted some more.”