Earlier this month, Elaine Reed and I had an opportunity to present at the 2013 Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center’s (MADC) Appreciation Luncheon “Preserving Wellness through Research and Creativity.” As part of our presentation on our creative interventions, we created this short video highlighting the amazing artwork created by members from the Silver Club and Elderberry Club, which are part of the University of Michigan Geriatric Center’s Mild Memory Loss Programs. In collaboration with U-M Stamps School of Art & Design Students, club members created these fantastic works of art!
The artwork is currently on display in the South Lobby Gallery on the first floor of the University of Michigan Hospital, located at 1500 East Medical Center Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48109.
Retaining Identity captures the spirit of creativity and embraces a shared experience. Partnering with UM Geriatric Center- Silver Club Memory Loss Program club members, including the newer Elderberry (barely elder) group, UM Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design students guided members in art making. Professor Anne Mondro’s students and club members shared experiences and expertise to create one-of-a kind works of art.
May 11- June 23, 2013, Opening Reception May 28th from 2:30-4:00pm
UM Matthaei Botanical gardens and Nichols arboretum, 1800 N. Dixboro Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48105, mbgna.umich.edu (734) 647-7600
The theme of the semester was Lessons Learned. Every time I teach this course, I too learn a bit more. I must admit it is a challenge to teach a community engagement course. I am often worried if I am meeting the students’ expectations as well as my community partners. I wake up wondering if the bus will be on time and if I have the right materials and supplies. More importantly, I wonder about the students. I hope they are connecting with their community partner, hope they are understanding why I selected the readings I did, hope they are enjoying the experience and learning from it. Likewise, I hope the UM Silver Club & Elderberry members are enjoying the experience. Every semester I go through the same set of worries. Now that the semester is over, I realize I should start giving up some of the worries. Observing my students interacting with the community members, I noticed how thoughtful, respectful, and patient they are. They reminded me of what this class is truly about.
~Anne Mondro, Associate Professor UM Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design
A few of more artworks created by Silver Club members during the course of the semester:
My experience at Silver Club was enlightening, to say the least. I feel as if I have been re-taught about aging and illness in a way that one can only learn by experience. I realized that up until volunteering there, I avoided the topic of aging in my head most of the time. Our culture has such an age bias that anyone over the age of forty is seen as irrelevant to modernity, progress, and fulfillment. I want to tell so many people that they are wrong. I want to go on television in a news broadcast and announce to the world that the elderly deserve their place in the media; in conversation. I realized that although I might know more about an iPhone than an 82-year-old, that person knows ten times more about life than me. I could have talked to my Silver Club partner for hours; he always had an interesting story to tell. I heard about his college days, his wife who used to always correct his grammar, traveling abroad, playing in a band, and all sorts of other things.
I also learned about treating human beings like, well, human beings. You can’t assume that because someone has dementia, that they need to be bossed around and worried over like a child. Not only do they deserve more respect, but if you show someone with dementia your true attention and give it a little time, you will see that there is still a strong personality and will in the mind of that person, a mind full of experiences that just need a little prompting to un-tap.
My member and I get along very well. Often times he would be in the process of teasing someone or creating a dramatic situation when I arrived, and then expect me to be his sidekick in antagonizing other members about their age. It seems a bit terrible (and in a way it was), but a lot of the times it was simply funny, something I couldn’t acknowledge with laughter out of respect for others but that I would chuckle about when I got home. I realized after maybe the second time there, that I was pretty wrong about the conversations I expected to happen vs. the conversations I didn’t expect. We could talk about anything. We talked about bullies, swimming lessons, dating, etc…and everyone at my table had a great dynamic. I can’t even count the number of times we ended up shaking in laughter.
I guess the reason I wanted to write about laughing is because when I first thought about what volunteering would be like, I assumed (as I’m sure others do) that it would be a very solemn, heavy business. However sad Alzheimer’s may be as a condition, these wonderful people get through it with laughter and a lightness that I only hope to emulate in the face of personal tragedy. They do not treat it as a tragedy at all, (at least in my experience) but a dry comedy for the ages.
I was apprehensive at first about working with Silverclub and Elderberry. The staff member had made several remarks about how excited everyone was to be working with right-brained creative types, which I don’t consider myself at all. I’m a designer, a problem solver, and when I can’t approach things in a calculated, analytical matter, I’m frozen. And now I wouldn’t just be frozen in my inability to get my own work done, but I would have someone counting on me to navigate the scary world of “fine arts,” and I’d let them down too!
My Elderberry Club partner frequently mentioned that she was “no artist” but this turned out not to be an impediment to our collaboration, but a blessing. I told her I wasn’t either and we relieved her fears of not being talented enough to do artwork and my fears of not being creative enough to do artwork. Together, we did the projects each week without getting too serious about them and enjoyed each other’s company. The greatest benefit of this prolonged exposure became obvious with the final, individual project, when I told her to tell me what she wanted from the vase we would design together. “Tell me if you think it looks right; tell me if you think it doesn’t,” I told her. And she did. I think this was really important because it became clear that you didn’t need to be “an artist” to be creative. All you needed was to want to see something be created, whether thats a vase, or a painting, or a piece of music, and everyone has that somewhere inside of them.
When people talk about dementia, it seems like the focus tends to be on what is lost. This is for good reason, certainly; loss of memory leads to a lot of confusion, uncertainty, and sometimes sorrow, as we’ve seen at Silver Club and Elderberry. That said, working with members in Silver Club over the past semester has really made me more interested in what pieces remain in a person living with Alzheimer’s.
For the most part, art has really been a great outlet for discovering where people’s interests lie if they don’t directly tell you. In fact, what I found was that situations in which members took to a project immediately always happened unexpectedly. A woman that I worked with a while ago is in fairly advanced stages of dementia, but when you give her a paint brush, she makes beautiful and precise images in such a way that can only have come from experience. If I asked her what she thought about what she was making, she wasn’t afraid to engage critically with the piece. “I don’t know,” she said, “it needs something. Maybe we should get some lunch and come back to it.”
Another woman that I worked with a number of times made evident several weeks ago that she just wasn’t really feeling up to making art. I got to a point where I stopped introducing projects to her, and just spent the time focusing on singing together; she has a database of memorized lyrics like I’ve never seen! Even though I gave up on the visual aspect a little while ago, a staff member lent us her ipad on one of the last Silver Club days and invited us to play with an app that lets you doodle on the screen. To my surprise, my partner took to it very well, despite frustration with the technology, and had a very deliberate and intentional way of creating line. It was exciting to see her readdress the interest in art that I knew she had- if only for a brief time! It’s amazing to me that both of these women can tap into a deep-seated interest and talent in art that, at this point, they may not even know they had.