Creating Synergy

[The current posts are written by students in Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts.  Partnering with U-M Geriatric Centers, Mild Memory Loss, Silver Club Programs, students have been paired with community members to create together.]

As I applied to the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan a little over a year ago, I had no idea that a course at the School of Art and Design would pop up in my class schedule. Fortunately, I was enlightened to the Memory, Aging and Expressive Arts course and encouraged to take it by my colleagues at the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center where I am currently completing an MSW internship.

Much to the surprise of a 23 year old social worker who to this day has trouble coloring in the lines, combining the skills of working with an older adult population with the lack of skills I have in the world of arts, created a synergy I could not have expected. When working with the members of the University of Michigan Silver Club programs, there is no pressure to be the next Picasso. Many days, there isn’t even pressure to create art. The members simply enjoy interacting with younger folks who have a sincere interest in learning about the experiences of aging first hand. The addition of creative expression gets to be that extra trigger that really enhances the experience for an older adult living with memory changes as well as the experience for the student who is learning how dementia can open up new parts of a person that were never there before. All of a sudden, the stoic attorney finds joy in painting his favorite landscapes. The professional and academic medical doctor finds that while she may no longer be able to verbally express herself due to aphasia, worlds are opened up through creating new musical works or even just listening to ageless songs that bring back the happiest memories of our younger years.

It doesn’t take a professional to harness the power of creativity to relate with those in all stages of memory loss. It only takes a person intuitive enough and patient enough to realize that dementia not only brings declines in some areas such as short term memory but it also brings out unknown strengths and joys that can bring just as much pleasure and enjoyment to life. It has been eye opening to work with people across disciplines this semester as well as the true experts on memory loss…those living with it.

~ Kenny, UM Student

Connecting through creativity

[The current posts are written by students in Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts.  Partnering with U-M Geriatric Centers, Mild Memory Loss, Silver Club Programs, students have been paired with community members to create together.]

After the first few weeks of meeting, I started to get a feel for the way my community member and I would be able to interact. He had trouble with remembering things short term, misplacing the glue, needing a reminder which color we were working with. Week to week, he couldn’t recall my name or anything about me, although he seemed more comfortable working with me than he had at the beginning. It was fascinating that although he couldn’t recall the particulars of our relationship, we were still becoming more familiar with each other through some level of connection.

During the third meeting, we began piecing together a mosaic from glass and stones, forming the image of a tulip to celebrate the arrival of spring. Even while having difficulty recalling or recognizing the image we were working on, our relationship deepened and when we came back to the project the next week, it was apparent that the familiar activity helped him feel comfortable with the project and my presence.

My community partner has lived a life of amazing adventures traveling the world and following his horticultural passions running a nursery for many years. While his memories of these events are fragmented and distant, much like the particulars of our time spent together, the experiences of his life have still imprinted on him making him the kind, joyful person that he is.

On our final meeting for the class, the art show at the botanical gardens, I had arrived before my community partner and was waiting anxiously, hoping he would recognize our work among all of the projects. When he arrived I has thrilled to see him from across the room and that he recognized me and came straight over, excited to introduce me to his son. In these moments, he was the most confident and cheerful I had seen him since we started working together. He said to me “I am so happy to see you here, we have been working together for a couple weeks now and you know I can’t quite remember everything but I can feel your presence and I’m glad you are here”. I was very moved that in this moment I could be an important part of his life and the comforting presence that he needed in an unfamiliar place in order to be able to enjoy the work that everyone had made.

-Ira, UM Penny W. Stamps Art & Design 2015 

There is No Right or Wrong

[The current posts are written by students in Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts.  Partnering with U-M Geriatric Centers, Mild Memory Loss, Silver Club Programs, students have been paired with community members to create together.]

My community partner was such a great artist—initially, I thought I would be the one instructing and leading the activity and conversation. Nonetheless, she was fully capable to create artworks and critique them. “There is no right or wrong! Just go with your instinct.” She would always remind me whenever I struggle to pick next color or shape. I could clearly picture her previous career as an art teacher, just by the way she speaks about the form, color, line, or ‘art.’ Although her memory is impaired, her nature as an artist is still there, deep down in her heart.

We developed a nice rhythm with one another. Both of us loved artistic activities, therefore, we were able to explore different areas of art such as watercolor and collage. Every week, we became closer and developed a stronger relationship through the artistic activities. Our relationship, I would say, is like a watercolor—we connected well just as the watercolor blends in and creates beautiful scenery.

Working with my community partner as well as the Silver Club members in general was a wonderful experience and I will never forget the time I spent with them. They might forget the students name and appearance one day, however, I believe the laughter, smile, and love that we shared together will remain in our hearts.

~ Jeehee, Senior, UM Art & Design Student

Free and Tangled

Expressing her feelings genuinely

Unwilling or unable to do otherwise

She is no “poster granny” seen on TV

She is unapologetically herself

Resistant and strong willed

 

Forget the things she can’t do

Her abilities are centered on the essential

Maintaining her identity

Protecting her well being

 

My “healthy” brain is envious

Bound to the external realities

Trapped by an understanding of what it takes to fit in

I am compliant and self-sacrificing

 

We are bound by the same expectations

However her tangles, the plaques and knots free her

Uninhibited and authentic

She enjoys the things she enjoys

She dislikes the things she dislikes

 

Rejecting impositions

The class and I call activities

She is taking her own course

~Poem by Danyelle, a recent graduate from the U of M School of Social Work

The Power of Sharing

[The current posts are written by students in Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts.  Partnering with U-M Geriatric Centers, Mild Memory Loss, Silver Club Programs, students have been paired with community members to create together.]

Reflecting on my conversations with my member over the last few weeks, the most wonderful memories I have are of our shared stories about our lives. Simply hearing stories from his life about travel, work, and his family taught me innumerable life lessons.  It was exciting to exchange stories about the places we have travelled and share stories about our accomplishments and goals. I hadn’t imagined it would be possible to form such a strong bond with someone who is fifty years my senior, but we created a wonderful friendship. I never had the opportunity to get to know either of my grandfathers, and this semester with my member allowed me to create a type of relationship I never had before this class.  What has resonated with me from this class are the many joys that can come from just sharing stories from our lives with other. They have the ability to teach, heal, entertain, and calm. Memory, Aging, and Expressive Arts is a course that rests on and revolves around the notion of sharing. Every lecturer who visited our class was there to share their knowledge with us about memory loss. Everyone was open to sharing personal stories and encouraged us to ask questions and to learn more. All of the members were open to sharing with us. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of this amazing experience, and I hope to share everything I have learned with the people around me.

~Isabel, UM Stamps Art & Design Student

Becoming Aware

[The current posts are written by students in Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts.  Partnering with U-M Geriatric Centers, Mild Memory Loss, Silver Club Programs, students have been paired with community members to create together.]

Nestled at the core of the brainstem lies the part of the brain responsible for regulating information and keeping us alert.  Known as the reticular formation, this area of the brain filters environmental stimulus, recognizing abrupt or important elements and bringing them to our attention, sparing us any meaningless information. It would be incredibly overwhelming to process every detail happening around us at each moment, so our reticular activator helps pick and choose what we find most important.

Let’s say you buy a new car – you don’t know very many people with the same car and you feel really unique and excited about your purchase.  On your drive home from the dealer, you are shocked to notice the car you just bought everywhere – that’s the reticular formation in action! This new car previously held no personal relevance, therefore carrying no perceptual importance.  Now, you are a proud car owner and it begins to hold weight with the reticular activator.

Before participating in Memory, Aging and Expressive Arts, I don’t remember being aware of the stigma against memory loss.  Through the readings, lectures and experiences offered by this class, I have become increasingly attentive to the negative attitudes of what it means to experience memory loss in literature and the mass media, as well as the general unfavorable perceptions held by my peers and community.  This element of aging previously dormant in my mind suddenly popped into view. With increased awareness of this affliction comes the responsibility to eliminate the existing negative stereotypes or generalizations about the impact of memory loss, putting positive and open-minded knowledge in their place.  I’m more aware, so I must be more ready to act.

~Annie, UM Stamps School of Art & Design

Embracing the Human Connection

I am a student in the School of Public Health here at U of M, studying the health services system. We hear over and over of how the current system is at risk of not being able to effectively serve the growing population of elderly adults in our country. To me, this seems like it should be at the top of most health systems’ agendas, since as every year passes millions of adults enter Medicare eligibility. With this growing population, health systems need to find ways to provide care that is not only effective, but is patient-centered and compassionate.

I have had the pleasure of working with one of the Wisdom Keepers community members for the past few months. He is a stroke survivor, former pilot,engineer,model airplane enthusiast and an artist. At first, I was nervous that we wouldn’t have anything in common or that he wouldn’t enjoy our art sessions. We began by painting with watercolor which he seemed to take only a slight interest in. We would paint for awhile and then he would want to read books about cars or planes. Luckily I have a father who is a pilot so I was able to immediately connect with him about planes and his prior travels. One day when we were painting I saw that he was concentrating very hard on his work. He was using his watercolor brush to draw a bi-plane, a specific kind of airplane which can do tricks and fly upside down. I quickly handed him a pencil and told him he would be able to get much more detail that way. Sure enough, he breezed through six drawings of planes, cars and even boats. As he was drawing, he was telling me about every part of each vehicle and why that part is necessary. I learned all about his favorite models of cars, the trips he took with his wife in his bright red convertible, the single-engine plane with an orange stripe that he used to own and his favorite airports to land at. It was clear that he was in his element: his engineering background combining with his hobby of flying and his obvious artistic talent. Every week we spent some time drawing, looking at maps and reminiscing about cars and the fun times he had with friends in those cars. This was no longer a college class for me: it was an opportunity to develop a friendship and have a mutually-stimulating weekly meeting, something that was much-needed in my busy schedule.

This experience opened my eyes to the importance of providing the right care for an aging population. Memory loss is extremely common in the elderly and should not be thought of as a hindrance to daily life. If the health services system can find a way to support those patients who have cognitive decline while enhancing their daily life, I see a future where providing care for the chronically ill and elderly population isn’t a burden to an already-overworked system. What my friend needed was a human connection and an outlet for his creative talents, not necessarily to produce award-winning artwork but to allow him the gift of expression, something he may have forgotten how to do after his stroke. What he did not need was to sit in a waiting room, and then sit in a hospital bed while being prodded and studied. Cognitive decline is an opportunity for patients and caregivers to look at life from a fresh perspective, not try to revert back to how life “used to be”. This course opened my eyes to this truth and I plan on using this experience to bring more expression into the current health services system.

~ Chrissy, School of Public Health Graduate Student, U of M