Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts: Importance of Family

The following is a post written by Sydney,  one of our students in Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts. Her post shares her interest in taking the course and reflects on the importance of community and family.  We look forward to sharing more posts with you in the coming month.  ~ Anne Mondro, Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts Professor

I registered for Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts in order to gain knowledge about the complexity of memory loss. By taking this course I hoped to develop various strategies in order to effectively connect with individuals, like my grandfather, who suffers from memory loss. I did not expect this class to alter my appreciation for my family as well as to deepen relationships with my parents and grandparents. In particular, my appreciation for my family heightened after hearing our guest care partner speak about her experience caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. She stressed the importance of a close-knit family as the base of her strong support system.

Being in college, I am unable to see my family on a daily basis. Even though I am unable to physically see my family, I still keep a constant dialogue with them. Family is the most important and stable thing I have in my life,  and I will not allow the distance between us to affect our relationship. This course has reinforced the significance that family plays in my life. With aging, the importance of family is heightened. My grandma (Nana) says family keeps her young. My grandfather (Pop-Pop) agrees. Family is the most important thing they have. In my family, there is a consensus that family is the core of happiness.

The Coffeehouse Club has been a home away from home for me. Each Thursday, as I walk into Coffeehouse, I feel a rush of emotions associated with positive family memories. The relationship I share with my Coffeehouse member is incredible. Talking with her makes me feel as though she is my grandmother. In particular, hearing simple stories from her life about travel, childhood, and secret home remedies has taught me countless life lessons. A few weeks ago, she told me about going to drive-in movie theatres with her high school boyfriend. This memory she shared was extremely special. Through the various stories, we have created a strong granddaughterly/grandma bond. Each Thursday, I leave Coffeehouse upbeat and cheerful, feeling a positive aura. In addition, as soon as I get home,  I call my grandmother in Bethesda to say hi. I feel so fortunate to be part of this amazing program, and I hope to share everything I have learned with my family.

Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts

As part of Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts, students are paired with Coffeehouse club members to explore, create, and share together.  The Coffeehouse club is one of the U-M Geriatric Centers Mild Memory Loss Programs in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and serves people in Ann Arbor and surrounding communities.  Below is a student reflection on the course and a recent visit to the University of Michigan Museum of Art, one of the many activities planned for the students and Coffeehouse members to enjoy together. 

Hello, I am an art student interested in the effect of aging and mental cognition. I come from a military background before coming to the University of Michigan. My interest in this program was to explore successful processes in dealing with the challenges of the disease and to be surrounded by strong experienced people. I also have an underlying hope that there may be an opportunity to share these skills and techniques with people with PTSD and vice versa.

Either case I am a strong believer in interactive support and find myself at constant surprise engaging with the Coffeehouse Members. We had a great opportunity to engage with members privately during our trip at the museum. I was surprise at the level of speed and intensity that my Coffeehouse member was operating at. I knew he was energetic and went out on runs. Once we where divided into teams, it was a bit difficult to unify everyone’s suggestions. My Coffeehouse member was already showing display of eagerness to go and took the initiative to start without us. So I just followed him, and doing so I discovered my misjudgment of his physical ability. He would run off from station to station. Once I got caught up we talked for a short while about the artwork. It was refreshing to find someone so knowledgeable and passionate about the artwork as I. The next day I was mentally sore from the information overload given by my member as well as physically sore just trying to keep up with him.

Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts 2015

Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts (MAEA) 2015 is underway! Sixteen students in art and design and social work are building their understanding and awareness of the complexity of memory loss and exploring various forms of creative expression to prepare to collaborate with the Coffeehouse Club, one of the University of Michigan (U-M) Geriatric Centers Mild Memory Loss Programs.

The start of the semester has included some insightful lectures and presentations. Dr. Nan Barbas, a University of Michigan (U-M) professor in neurology, introduced the science of memory including discussing the various types of memory and the concept that memories aren’t concrete. Professor Beth Spencer in the U-M School of Social Work discussed aging and the challenges that older adults face. Laura Rice-Oeschger, U-M Coffeehouse Program Facilitator and MADC Wellness Coordinator, introduced the concepts of personhood and wellbeing in relation to memory loss. Andee Jannsen, trained in dementia care, spoke to the students to touch upon key interpersonal skills and best practices for working with memory-impaired adults.

The lectures and presentations have been balanced with creative activities. Teaching with Elaine Reed, U-M Hospital Artist in Residence and Co-Facilitator of Silver Club Mild Memory Loss Programs, we are introducing various modes of creative expression. We have explored writing including poetry and story building and just completed a two-week visual art exercise to practice developing age-appropriate and sophisticated projects. This coming week we’ll be exploring Ipad apps to build creative projects around and hear from a U-M composer and former MAEA student on using music to connect to others.

All that said, the course couldn’t exist without the Coffeehouse club members, a group of amazing and inspiring men and women. Their kindness and openness has already been recognized by several of the students over the past few weeks.

The students and Coffeehouse members meet together every Thursday morning to share in new creative experiences. Together they have explored a music activity, a dance class, and visited the University of Michigan Museum of Art. In the coming weeks the students and Coffeehouse members will be paired to create collaborative projects based on their interests.

MAEA relies on creativity to bring people together, to provide moments of discovery, joy, and kindness. Stay tuned as the students and Coffeehouse members share their insights on this experience!

~Anne Mondro, Associate Professor, Stamps School of Art & Design, Lead Instructor of Memory, Aging & Expressive Arts 

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