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.
~Sarah Hall, Art & Design student
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
My two members never cease to surprise me with their creativity and positive attitudes. The great thing is that that is where the similarities between them end, because they are very different individuals with very distinct styles.
I noticed this right upon meeting them. The first member always takes a moment to pause and think about where to make her mark on the page. After a few pensive and still moments, you can always count on her to say that the image “needs something.” Her work tends to be minimalist, orderly and thoughtful, and she rarely needs suggestions. Her pace tends to be very slow and steady since she balances her creative time with careful planning and thinking.
On the other hand, the other member attacks each new project with unbridled zeal and joy. He often does two or even three pieces in the short amount of time that we are allotted. He has a little more trouble with fine motor skills, but paired with his outstanding energy and attitude, this often results in very free marks in his work. I’ve noticed that he responds really well to and is open to minimal suggestions, such as how to manipulate media in a different way.
After observing this for a few weeks, I decided to tailor a particular project to the way each of them likes to work. It was a simple Mondrian-inspired piece that involved taping the paper off into rectangular sections and painting with primary colors. For the female member, I made sure to make more boxes for her to fill in because I knew she would enjoy organizing the colors, while I gave the other member larger spaces because he enjoys the act of painting more than planning. I also gave each of them different tools. The precision-driven member was given fast-drying paper and a small brush ideal for the exact marks that are a hallmark of her style. Conversely, the stylistically energetic member was given slow-drying Yupo paper so he could make printed patterns with paper towels and other materials after painting. Both members really seemed to enjoy themselves, and the work they made that day really showcased their respective styles.
-Megan Mulholland, Art & Design student