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Art program for Wyomingites living with dementia continues to grow

Art program for Wyomingites living with dementia continues to grow

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K. Hulbert and her husband, Don, stopped at every art display during a show and reception for Here and Now: A Dementia Focused Art Class at the Nicolaysen Art Museum. The couple read biographies of K. and other artists as they admired their paintings, fabric art pieces and clay pots in the shape of colorful muffins. Participants greeted teachers and fellow participants, and a Wyoming Symphony Orchestra string duet played in the main gallery where people gathered to watch a video about the program.

The free Here and Now classes began about six years ago as a collaboration between the museum and Wyoming Dementia Care, its executive director Dani Guerttman said. Thursday’s event was the fourth annual reception during National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month to celebrate the class participants and to help spread the word about services available in the community.

The Here and Now program has grown in Casper, spread across the state and gained new partnerships, including with the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra.

“I think we have always known what a unique and special and program this is for our community here in Casper,” Guerttman said, “and it really has just been solidified by the enthusiasm of other parts of the state taking on this program.”

Growing program

“Here and Now” grew from one class to two monthly sessions that always fill. People must register in advance to attend, and more sessions are possible if interest continues to grow, Guerttman said.

The program has expanded across the state as well with classes that have started in Pinedale, Sheridan and at the University of Wyoming as Here and Now: A Program of Wyoming Dementia Care.

“So rather than reinventing the wheel, they were able to take a program with proven success and a lot of knowledge and background to it and just unfold it in their own community,” Guerttman said.

The University of Wyoming Art Museum began its Here and Now classes after curator of education and statewide engagement Katie Christensen saw Guerttman give a presentation, she said. The museum lacked a program for older adults, and she was interested in incorporating arts in health and wellness.

“It brings joy, and I think that’s kind of an amazing thing to hear them light up and start to reminisce,” Christensen said. “And they’re not always remembering specific memories but the artwork is this trigger that kind of allows them to kind of have a human connection and share with each other. And you never know where the conversations are going to go. “

The program organizers plan a collaboration with the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra to share music with people living with dementia and their caregivers. One idea so far is to invite them to rehearsals where they can enjoy the music without the larger crowds, Guerttman said.

The program gives people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related illnesses an opportunity to explore and communicate through art and experience intellectual and sensory stimulation as they work with mediums including clay, paint and printmaking, according the Nicolaysen.

The classes offer a safe and supportive environment and give people with dementia and loved ones a chance to explore art together, Nicolaysen curator of education Zhanna Gallegos told attendees Thursday.

They incorporate different senses and often spark conversations about participants’ memories and what various art processes remind them of, said Amy Christie, a Nicolaysen art educator.

It’s a chance to express themselves in an open, creative way and to have new experiences and and fun, Nicolaysen art educator Tori Chamberlain said. In one class with a still-life project, they brought in fruit for the participants to smell. Another time, the participants had a snowball fight with fake snowballs.

“Letting them play and have a good time with each other and laugh,” Chamberlain said, “that’s super important, if we can get them to smile and laugh and enjoy the time.”

Benefits of art

Don and K. Hulbert have participated in the classes almost since the beginning. He’s among several loved ones who participate, and it’s good for both of them, he said.

“It stimulates our thinking; it stimulates the brain to try to do new things,” Don said.

“I think we get satisfaction from doing things that we would not normally be doing,” he added. “Working with our hands and our brains and whatever creative genetic genes that we have and then we can produce something that we can actually take home and look at or show people, show our relatives.”

K. majored in art the University of Minnesota, while Don wasn’t into art until the classes. Sometimes they help each other, like when K. explains how he can make purple paint by mixing red and blue. She’s always been social and enjoys the time with others.

“There’s a benefit of socializing with the other people who are doing the art and with the instructors,” Don said. “So that’s an additional advantage for people with Alzheimer’s. It’s important to socialize, keep relationships going. You see what other people do and enjoy their artwork.”

Mary Joann Russ is among a group of Mountain Plaza Assisted Living residents who attend the classes. Some of her favorite classes involved painting and weaving.

“It relaxes me,” she said.

The classes give residents a chance to get out, meet new people and work with teachers with art experience, Mountain Plaza Assisted Living administrator Kenyne Humphrey said.

Russ spends most of the classes concentrating on her project, and she’s always excited to return and show others what she created, said Humphrey, a former mayor of Casper.

Guerttman has seen the program both grow and benefit those with dementia and caregivers in its six years.

“I think it would just be seeing it bring joy, a sense of personhood,” she said, “an ability to integrate into our community and participate in community events.”

Follow arts & culture reporter Elysia Conner on twitter @erconner

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