Memorizing In Color

When I signed up for this class I knew only a sliver of information on Dementia, mostly consisting of what I now see as stigmas. The readings we discussed in class were helpful to further my knowledge, and even Still Alice was helpful in understanding just how fast one can progress. I learned that the process of memory loss isn’t linear thus there are good and bad days.

Taking this information with me to Elderberry Club I was really surprised the first few visits that my Elderberry partner seemed to be just like any other older adult I knew. She forgot some things, remembered some other things, nothing that seemed out of place to me.  She told me all about her granddaughter and how amazingly wonderful she is.  It wasn’t until the next visit that I realized something was wrong.  She didn’t remember whom this girl was and was puzzled by her presence—it was like the granddaughter she told me all about never existed. That really tore me up, especially being as close as I was to my grandma, I couldn’t imagine what I’d do if she had forgotten me. Even though I wasn’t her granddaughter, I think I may have reacted as if I was, upset for a while after and thinking about how devastating it would be not to remember things of such importance.

There was a light though, that same day she told me that she remembered the bright colors of the week before. I asked her further about what she remembered. She told me she had liked some colors she had seen in someone else’s painting and that day went home and recreated something similar. She mentioned that she was able to visualize bright colors easier, thus that’s why she must remember them.

From working together I learned how picky she can be with colors, she carefully thinks before putting any color down. I may have once thought this was indecision, but after getting to know her passion to carefully decide what color is what, I now know to let her be. She is just as particular as every other artist when picking colors— she wants to consider the consequences of the relationships of one color to the next. Orange flowers are given blue leaves, and when I question why they aren’t green I get the simple response: “this looks better,” and she’s right.

My member is fully capable to produce artwork that I would be proud to make.

~Emily, Art & Design U of M Student 

Singing: Raising the happiness quota

Last Tuesday was probably my favorite day in Silver Club.

This in itself was surprising, since we were short on both staff members and students that day. The collage project planned required lots of cut out pieces of paper, and getting the correct colors and objects to members made things a tad hectic at the beginning. But in no time at all, everyone was settled down plotting out designs for their landscapes and having a grand old time. And that’s when the fun started.

First off, let me say that I have found a kindred spirit in my Silver Club partner. He has a wondrous sense of humor that shines through the art projects, and between the two of us we’re often getting in trouble of some sort. Last Tuesday it started when he heard singing. My roommate Sarah was singing to her partner on the other side of the room, and when the room quieted down we were all able to hear it.

“Whose singing?” said my member.

“Sarah and her partner across the room,” I said.

He contemplated this for a second and said, “We should sing. Louder.”

The other folks at my table and I laughed, thinking he was kidding. I know that he used to enjoy folk festivals with his wife, and was trying to think of some song that we could sing back with, when he broke out into a chorus of ‘I’ve been Working on the Railroad’. Every member joined in, singing it as loud as they could as the students frantically scrambled for words they hadn’t sung since elementary school. Sarah’s Silver Club partner found it hilarious, making the train’s whistle noises when the song called for it.

Singing together in that moment brought the happiness quota already present in the room up several notches, leaving my partner wreathed in smiles. It’s not often that outreach allows us to do things collectively as a group, and it was nice to share that moment with all in the room.  Club Members also thought it funny that students had issues remembering the words.

Afterwards, my member and I talked about the South and the railroads while we worked. Every Tuesday his art astounds me, and this time was no exception. If I could use watercolors like he does, I wouldn’t need art school.

I hope that sometime in the future, we can all sing together again. And I hope I remember more of the words….

~ Meggie Ramm, UM Art & Design Student



Designing for others

During an initial discussion of general questions and concerns, a classmate expressed his anxiety of making art with our members because, unlike most students who are artists, he is a designer. While he was reassured that his design abilities would translate into the experience, his expression continued to plague me. It was the catalyst of my own anxieties as a designer. Designers create under specific criterion as dictated by the client, so, ideally, they are effective communicators working with people from all fields and temperaments. If I am able to effectively communicate ideas and concepts through design projects, why is conversation more challenging?

Conversation truly is an art, requiring equal parts of talking and listening. While I claim to be a good listener, I admit talking is more difficult. When meeting new people, I’m often perceived as shy due to my introverted nature. As I begin to speak, I fear that my conversations will only amount to small talk, or seem plain insignificant. Luckily, my Elderberry partner is accepting of my sparse conversation. She too is a quiet person, so we enjoy peoplewatching and eavesdropping. We often share moments of non-verbal conversation, like when we make eye contact and laugh about something we’ve overheard. I think the openness of the space and projects allows for interesting conversations ranging from dating to classes. While we enjoy listening to the conversations around us, I wonder if she would like me to be more talkative.

Oddly, the greatest challenge, however, is accepting that my partner has dementia because she doesn’t show outward signs of struggle. She is just as aware of our surroundings as I am, responding in a smile or quiet laugh. Furthermore, she is confident in her creative ability and efficient process, always having time to spare for watercolor painting. She seems to want more challenging projects. Working one-on-one enables me to revise our projects to better suit her needs. In particular, she enjoys painting patterns using a variety of colors. I wonder if our final project will entail watercolors, perhaps on a larger scale.

I had anticipated my experience as an assistant art teacher would translate to working with adults with memory loss, but my experience, thus far, has proved to be completely unique. While my initial anxieties have eased, I wonder what more I can do to create a space and projects more catered to her. I find myself asking, “How can I apply myself as a designer, and individual, to best help my partner?”

~Tery Hung, Art & Design and English Literature student

Beyond the Stereotype

Pop art was the inspiration for two of the projects we did at Silver Club. I discussed color choices with my Silver Club partner. We decided to put the cool colors across from each other diagonally, and then warm colors across from each other. Then I asked her in which room of her home she would display her artwork. I suggested the living room. She dismissed this, saying instead that it would be better to put it in her own room. She could not imagine these rather loud colors would match with her daughter’s more conservative living room décor. It probably would not match at all, but she liked the compliment and I brought a smile to her face.

I carefully held down the stencils as my partner painted them in. She was very deliberate about mixing the paint to just the right consistency and not pressing the brush down so hard that the paint bled. A few times she began to inadvertently paint on the styrofoam stencil instead of on the paper. By the second or third time that she did this, I realized it was because of her memory loss that she could not recall the steps. I remembered this from my training, and also that she might be feeling sensitive and self-conscious about her memory lapses. So I smiled and gently reminded her. She was patient with me, and I was patient with her. Besides, we were having fun.

Once the squares were all painted, we chatted a bit as we allowed them to dry. Then I handed her pieces of double-sided tape to adhere to the backs of the colored paper squares. We then positioned the squares onto black cardstock. It looked amazing, especially considering how people with dementia are stereotyped as being incapable of creativity. My partner beamed with pride as I put her artwork on the wall along with the other projects. We were all gathered in a semi-circle around the artwork. We sat back and looked at all of the artwork on the wall. Some had very good craftsmanship. Some were more abstract. A couple of them also incorporated the white styrofoam stencils themselves into the design. All were unique.

The Silver Club facilitator led the discussion about the artwork, and more than half of the members eagerly participated. She addressed each of them by name and warmly engaged them in a thoughtful and fun discussion of the work. The members were far from the stereotype: old, catatonic, and senile they were not. They were more animated, insightful and pleased with themselves than one might expect a group of older adults with dementia to be. We all agreed when the facilitator suggested that the works collectively resembled a colorful quilt.

This session went very well and it looked like we all had a pleasant time. Before she left, my partner gave me a big hug and told me “I love you”. I am so happy that I can make a difference in her life.

~Marie Belton, BFA Candidate- class of 2013

popart EB- Close up- cartoon Project

Taking down walls: An experience at Elderberry

Reading Alzheimer’s literature it’s hard not to get bogged down in sadness. The illness is one that is takes without remorse, stealing someone’s ability to communicate and remember their loved ones. Yet every time I go to Silver Club and Elderberry, rather than become depressed, I am inspired by the men and women who have this disease. They are people with such colorful personalities, wonderful stories, and positive attitudes.

The member I work with always manages to amaze me with her wisdom and insight. The last time I visited, we talked about the instruments we play. She remarked that although she never had piano lessons, the first time she encountered a piano, she sat down and played it with surprising ease. Her relatives were amazed, but she just tried to play what felt natural. I told her that I’m not very musically talented and am hesitant to try different instruments, but she didn’t accept that answer. “Isn’t that you putting up walls? You should always try and if it sounds horrible, oh well!”

I was amazed by her insight and fearless attitude; she challenged me and made me realize that my hesitancy was an expression of fear.  She, who has every reason to put up walls if she wanted to, was telling me to let go of my fear and try new things. It was an inspiring moment, and one that made me examine how I live my life.

Every time we visit, the member I work with thanks me for coming, but this moment showed me how much I have to gain from this experience. Sharing art and life experiences through this class has affirmed to me that while Alzheimer’s is a condition that takes, the people who have it still have a lot to give.

~ Deena Etter, Student of Cultural Anthropology