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

The Legacy in the Story

[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.]

Setting up for the exhibition, I was looking over all of the amazing art that the Wisdom Keeper club members have made; paintings, vases, and the most beautiful sketches, a semester’s accumulation of hard work and dedication, on the part of both the members and students. It is amazing that each piece is so perfectly matched to the members; the students did a good job picking out their interests and likes/dislikes. Interestingly enough, this was the hardest part for me. I was so engrossed in her stories of traveling Europe, her passion for history and her love for chocolate, that we barely focused on the art.

We didn’t do many paintings or sketches, or any visual art really, but that could be why she was so proud of our vase. She walked in, commenting on this art piece or that, and when we got to our piece I could see that she was impressed by how it turned out.  Our weeks of chit-chat and sharing stories helped create a remarkable and functional piece that beautifully represented the time we spent together. The interconnecting maps of her favorite travel sites, like Amsterdam, Berlin, Ann Arbor, Mackinac Island, sparked another round of stories and memories of her adventures. The stories continued, and I am transported, yet again, to a different time, and a slightly different her. Of course, her vitality, animation, and enthusiasm remain, but when she goes back and relives these important moments in her life, the light she has is so vibrant and explosive. When she reminisces on her travels, and when she looks back on who she went on these journeys with, it is blatantly apparent that the people in her life have shaped her bubbly personality and her outlook on life.

This class has given me a new outlook on both older adults, and how I want to live my life from here on out; I have so much to learn if I just listen to the experiences and stories of the older people in my life, and I should do things that make me happy, have adventures that make memories, and live my life like I am collecting stories to share myself, and to act as the legacy I leave behind.

~Dorian, UM Student

In Giving We Receive

In Anne Bastings novel, she states, “Relationships with a person with dementia are reciprocal.” I experienced this concept first hand, working with my community member, a former art teacher. Ignorantly, I came into this course, “Memory, Aging and Expressive Arts” thinking that I would be the one to offer something, some kind of insight to my community member. This was true – at least being able to offer “something” was – at the surface level. My fellow classmate and I provided the art supplies each week, but it was our community member who provided the creative tools, insight and expertise to take our art projects where she wanted it to go. Although she relied on cueing – looking at our nametags – to call us by name, she did not need any assistance being creative. Whereas the logical side of her brain was fading, it was evident that the creative part was in full bloom. She fell into her role as educator and art teacher very naturally, offering endless encouragement and praise. This experience is something I will always remember. I believe my community member summed it up best when she said, “We can learn from each other. We each have something to offer, if the other is willing to receive.”

~Amy, Master of Social Work Candidate 2014


An Old Friend

[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 first memory of him is from across a drum circle. He sits, quietly, hand resting in his lap. From where I sit he seems reserved, barely engaging with the room. But his face is open and his eyes are alert.

And the music begins. Drums being pounded and walloped and played out of turn. He smiles widely and mimics the other players with care. Songs are sung and he knows every word or, if he doesn’t, he just sings it a beat behind.

He expands in every way: sitting a little taller, arms wide, ribbing the women on either side. The music opens him wide, joins him with others, reminding him of his powerful voice and entertaining ways.

He tells me about home and his television shows. His life is glossed over in generalities and a shrug. There was a romance, “the best wife ever made”, and a single tear. We yearn for the comfort of laughter.

Each visit after is a journey for that place. We paint and play cards, listen to music and sing. He talks about a trip to Washington and an old friend’s beautiful home. He welcomes laughter with everything he has.

And it is beautiful, that connection of play. He tolerates my painting projects and relaxes into our card games. We tease and joke and pretend to care who wins. We welcome laughter with everything we have.

~Kathy, Stamps School of Art & Design student 

Lepidopteran Perspective on the Persistency of Memory




  1. any of a large order of insects comprising the butterflies, moths, and skippers that as adults have four lanceolate wings covered with minute overlapping and brightly colored scales and that as larvae are caterpillars



Butterflies have long captured the attention of willing observers with their prismatic display of delicately patterned wings and, seemingly, haphazard-style of aerial navigation.  However, even more striking than a butterfly’s form, is the juxtaposition between its previous incarnations as a crawling caterpillar to winged adult.






  1. the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information.
  2. the mind regarded as a store of things remembered.
  3. something remembered from the past; a recollection
  4. the length of time over which people continue to remember a person or event.



Metamorphosis begins when the caterpillar reaches a genetically ingrained “final weight” signaling dormancy. The caterpillar will grow an appendage called the “cremaster” that will protrude from the end of its abdomen. The cremaster is the attachment with which the caterpillar will acrobatically pendent itself from a foliage perch. When suspended, the caterpillar will then molt its superficial costume to reveal the chrysalis beneath.






  1. the identification of the nature of an illness or other problem by examination of the symptoms.
  2. the distinctive characterization in precise terms of a genus, species, or phenomenon.



What occurs inside the chrysalis is a mystery that science has been trying to unravel for centuries. The perceived mundaneness of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis is borne from the common knowledge of this phenomenon we learn as children. But, the abstruse transition that unfolds inside the chrysalis is little understood and, when paid extra thought than typically provided, it is truly a remarkable feat of nature. 






  1. the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.
  2. a passage in a piece of writing that smoothly connects two topics or sections to each other.



Inside the chrysalis is a cellular soup of tissue and blood, organs and bone, neurons and memories. The caterpillar does not remain intact and simply grow wings; the caterpillar liquesces inside the chrysalis into a preparatory ooze. The tangible mixture of the caterpillar’s previous being materializes into a renaissance form; a butterfly emerges from the chrysalis.






  1. a quiescent insect pupa, esp. of a butterfly or moth.
  2. the hard outer case of this, esp. after being discarded.
  3. a preparatory or transitional state.



When you undergo such a transformation from a terrestrial creature to one with aerial pursuits, what carries through? If your physical being is entirely reconstructed, what of your spiritual presence remains intact? It is now known, butterflies remember their previous armatures as caterpillars. Even though the physicality of their existence has profoundly changed, the butterfly remains conscious of its undiminished identity.






  1. the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.
  2. a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means.



Truly, the lepidopteran metamorphosis is much like the human experience. We are all similar in fate to emerging butterflies, set loose in an alien zone, at the wrong altitude, among an unfamiliar flora. Physical and spiritual transitions, diagnoses, or metamorphoses experienced through life’s course serve as persistent reminders – the journey is temporal, fluid, and personal. We will never know how the mind turns the water of our cells into the wine of consciousness.Therefore, the question is not, what of me carries forward into the future; it is, what of my future self is in me right now?  



By Colby Chambers, Graduate Student, School of Public Health


[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.]

I came into this class with very little experience in working with older adults, let alone older adults with memory loss. I had a small sense of what to expect, but couldn’t have imagined it would be such a fun and exciting experience

I was given the opportunity to work with a community member who was extremely outgoing. Her energy and excitement lit up the room and gave our meetings a sense of ease. We were lucky to be partnered with another community member/student pair, with whom we would work.

The four of us would sit together each week. As we exchanged stories and worked on projects, there would be a constant air of laughter and jokes. It felt as though we had all been old friends. At the end of each session, we would play cards for a while. This was something we could all do that allowed a sense of comfort and normalcy – nobody felt as though they weren’t skilled enough to do the task. The slight competition was something everyone enjoyed and became the basis for a lot of jokes that were made. It was over these card games that I heard the most stories from our community members pasts and felt most comfortable with them.

The highlight moment of the semester came at the very end of our last meeting session. We ended it in a large group where we were informed we would be having an impromptu dance party. One of the community members I had been working with all semester asked me to dance with him, an offer I’d never decline. As we danced, he spun me around and we sang Blue-Sued Shoes together. I guarantee we had smiles plastered on our face, it was the perfect way to conclude our semester together.

~ Bri Broderick, Junior, Art & Design and Cognitive Science 

Strength and humor

[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.]

What struck me most about my community member from day one was her strength. Her poised, confident and humorous manner is something I strive for everyday, yet she does it with ease. Every time we met I would learn a little bit more about her adventurous life and was amazed by her strong independence, particularly since she grew up in a time when female independence was much less common.  She is clearly proud of her life but it is a calm, complacent pride- happiness. During most of the visits, we just ended up chatting the entire time, discussing life, politics and travel. I felt guilty that we were not painting or collaging like other pairs but I felt like by sharing stories and realizing the similarities of experiences, we were creating something special all our own.

The most memorable of stories was when we were discussing my community member’s trip through Europe. While in Germany she visited a former concentration camp. I had studied abroad last year and also visited a concentration camp. Retelling both our experiences of walking through the camps was chilling and depressing but also incredible because they were so similar. We both described the weight we felt looming over us as we walked through and just the unshakable feeling of death. Despite our many differences, it was a shared understanding and experience that brought us closer.

One personal struggle that I find, as a woman today is the ability to express strength and confidence while maintaining a sense of emotional presence. It is easy to get caught up in the female dichotomy of the strong heartless or the weak emotional woman. In my community member I pleasantly found that she had hit the sweet spot, confidence and strength appeared natural to her but did not close her off to emotion. She seemed to welcome emotions yet handle them with poise. It’s an attribute that I admire immensely and I hope to one day emulate.

~Emily, Art & Design Student 

A Sense of Community through Drumming

[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 taking Retaining Identity last year, I knew immediately that I wanted to repeat the experience while working with the Wisdom Keepers. I came into class with a general sense of how to work with older adults with memory loss, but I can’t even begin to expand upon how many different ways of working with this population I learned this semester.

As a shy and awkward person, I expected the interactions with the members and the students, particularly my own interaction, to be very hesitant and wary. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised with the strength through which all the members and students responded to one another especially in our first group drumming activity. Four of us were randomly called upon to sit in the center and somehow create a rhythm together.

And create we did.

It astounded me how much the members and students responded to each other when creating such beats. Even those who weren’t drumming in the center were extremely enraptured by the beat filling the room. Some were even clapping along with the beat. Never before had I felt such an exhilaration and sense of community by watching people drum together. It is almost as if the music was speaking to all of us, encouraging us to work together in the present and in the future.

After working with the community members for another semester, I feel the introduction of activities that are not just focused on the fine arts really helped the members and students connect. I for one will never underestimate the power of music again. Whether it be through drumming, painting, singing, or dancing, I hope to continue these interactions with the members as working with them has been an extremely fulfilling experience.

~ Aditi Gang, Junior, Art & Design and Psychology student

Sharing knowledge

A couple weeks ago, a family friend asked me for advice about someone who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease knowing that I work in a retirement home. I was really excited to tell her about Memory, Aging, and Expressive Arts and what I learned from the course. It felt great to help someone gain a better understanding of the disease and relieve some of her worries just by sharing some of the knowledge I have gained from the class. I recommended her to look into programs like the Silver Club.

My time working with the Wisdom Keepers was different from what I was expecting. There is not a dramatic change in the disease and sometimes you can’t help but wonder if you are helping at all. I learned to pay attention to the subtle details to see the effect. By noticing little improvements, I saw so many wonderful things happen during my short time with the Wisdom Keepers.

My first time meeting the Wisdom Keeper member I was going to work with, I got the impression that she was a little quiet, and maybe even sad. Our day pretty much started the same each week. We would have the same conversation and when the artwork began, my member always reminded me that she was no good but she will try. Once she started painting or collaging, she became very focused and determined to get her work just right. The final product always turned out beautiful and it was exciting to see how happy that made her. She was all smiles as she showed her work to the other members and her daughter. She could not wait to bring the work home and hang it up.

The change from our first meeting to the last was incredible. Her memory was not great, she repeated the same sentences often, forgetting that she told me the same thing just ten minutes before. On our last afternoon together, she brought up the art exhibition that we talked about the previous week and said how excited she was for it. This moment will stick with me for a long time.

Making someone happy is one of the best feelings and I am so proud that I could see the positive impact our work was having on the members. The members were not the only ones gaining from weekly meet ups. I have grown as a person and have a better perspective on aging, happiness, and life in general. I feel so privileged to have had this experience.

~ Kristine, UM Art & Design Student