With the backing of the Alzheimer’s Association, an art program called Memories in the Making helps people paint their memories.
Losing one’s memory through dementia — be it short-term or long-term — is an excruciating experience both for the sufferer and for their loved ones. Often, people who live with dementia because of Alzheimer’s disease or other memory impairments don’t know how to interact or function in a world that no longer works easily for them. But the Alzheimer’s Association is combating the isolation and disempowerment of dementia through a program called Memories in the Making (MIM).
Memories in the Making began in California over 20 years ago when art therapist Selly Jenny faced the dilemma of communicating with her own mother, who’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Jenny began using art to help communicate with her mother, and the program quickly grew with the backing of the Alzheimer’s Association. There are now art groups all over the U.S. that help people with dementia learn to paint their memories.
“The whole essence of this program is to encourage communication and provide an environment and an opportunity to stimulate memories that still may exist and then to capture those,” explains Matt Gannon, the program specialist at Alzheimer’s Association Oregon Chapter. “And this process is proven to work in that regard, and so we find it very, very effective in that way to encourage communication.”
So how does the program work, exactly? Gannon says every chapter is a little different, but in general, care facilities that want to implement the program get trained by the Alzheimer’s Association to use art to facilitate communication for their patients. Care facilities, ranging from adult day care centers to assisted living residences, have faculty and volunteers who take trainings where MIM coordinators walk them through the process.
“What we also know is that when somebody engages in the creative process of painting, which is what this is, that everything else kind of stops for them for a while — time and everything else,” says Gannon. “And it allows them an opportunity to be in that creative space where they’re using their imagination.”
Participants in the program are asked to come to weekly sessions. When they walk into the sessions, they’ll find art supplies already laid out for them and friendly facilitators who’ll guide them through the process. People don’t have to be artists to participate — anyone is welcome. “It’s an environment that is considered to be safe, judgment-free. This isn’t about evaluation or criticizing or anything like that,” notes Gannon.
Lisa Steffen, the MIM coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association in Colorado, also notes that the facilitators guide and encourage, but they never do the art for the participant. “We don’t do any sketching; we don’t do any helping them out,” she says. “And one of the other important things our facilitators learn how to do is to be really attentive to our artists. When they’re in the zone and painting on their own, to be able to step back and just let them do that and not disrupt that flow.”
As participants paint, conversations naturally develop around what they’re painting. And more often than not, the painting evokes some kind of deep memory from the past — memories that were thought to be lost but are now reborn on paper, often to the delight of loved ones. The facilitators jot down the thoughts and memories that come with each painting so that those stories are captured in written form, too.
“It gives a window to some thoughts that a person might have that they’re not able to express in another fashion,” says Jim Herlihy, senior director of marketing and communications at the Alzheimer’s Association in Colorado. “If they’re not able to verbally express themselves, the art gives them a tool to express themselves.”
Nelson and Deborah Stewart have been married for over 30 years, and Nelson started developing dementia about 10 years ago. Nelson enjoyed watercolor painting in the past, but he hadn’t done any painting since his diagnosis. When Deborah heard about the MIM program in Portland, Oregon, she talked Nelson into going.
“It was really hard for us to come that first time,” Deborah says. “We were welcomed with open arms, and we were so impressed with the support and cheeriness of the organization…. It’s like a magical place where everything’s normalized. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t know what that means, but you become a full person. You’re just there having a wonderful time. That’s all it is, no matter what.”
Nelson grew up on a small farm in Elizabeth, Indiana. “I farmed corn, wheat, tobacco,” he describes. “A little bit of everything.” When Nelson started painting at MIM, he began exploring his fragmented past.
The memories of his farm life as a child resurfaced, and he painted idyllic moments that are profoundly unassuming yet poignant. This journal entry accompanied his artwork shown above: “I was born on a small farm in Indiana on the Ohio River. Barbering was my trade for more than 50 years. I started watercolors late in my life, 37 years old, even though I doodled a lot. My art brings me home to farms, chickens, cars from the ’50s, and wonderful memories I see in my mind. Before my diagnosis, I wasn’t able to paint for many years, but slowly I am gathering the spirit and skills to continue to have painting back in my life.”
“I feel peaceful,” said Nelson. “It’s a peaceful feeling to go back — a positive feeling to tap into all these farm scenes.”
Michelle Puplava’s mother, who has short-term memory loss after a stroke four years ago, is a participant in Colorado’s MIM chapter. Michelle says her mother has experienced similar positive moments while being part of MIM at a facility in Denver.
“She’s never really been into art at all, so I was really surprised she’s been enjoying it as much as she has,” said Puplava. “The transition from being a very independent woman to being shuttled to and from a care facility a couple times a week was really hard for Mom. But having this art program to look forward to has helped her be more comfortable being at the center and interacting with other participants.”
Puplava’s mother, who is 68, painted an image recalling a family vacation trip they took to Maui when Puplava was 10. “We’ve been able to share that memory together again,” she says.
Every spring, participants in each statewide chapter submit their best artwork, which is evaluated by a panel of judges from each region. The jury selects 50 pieces from each state chapter, and each one then holds an auction where the artwork is sold. In many chapters, including Colorado and Oregon, local professional artists often submit work to pair with the MIM participants’ works. The money raised, which can surpass hundreds of thousands of dollars, serves each local MIM chapter.
The chapters also hold a reception for the artists whose artwork is selected for the auction. Knowing their art can reach and serve others gives participants a deep feeling of achievement, which makes everything worth it to MIM coordinators and volunteers.
“It’s a great way for people — especially those in care communities who don’t get to spend a lot of time with their loved ones,” Gannon says. “When they get to come in and see art on display, there’s sort of this reconnection, this awe.”
Nelson Stewart’s art has been part of the auction in Oregon. His wife Deborah says, “The first artist reception that we went to, it was amazing to see everybody’s art displayed in such an honorable way,” she says.
Deborah recalls one fellow participant telling her at the reception, “Who would think with such a horrible diagnosis, I could have such a great life?”
She also said her own daughter came to see the art and asked, “How can you not cry?”
Michelle Puplava’s mother’s art will be on display for the first time at this year’s auction in Colorado, and she’s looking forward to the reception. “It’s great for me to see her so excited and to feel proud of something she’s created,” says Puplava.
While Alzheimer’s disease is the primary focus of MIM, the program works with anyone who has had a memory impairment. Alzheimer’s itself is the sixth leading cause of death in America, and it currently has no cure. Through art, Memories in the Making is changing the hopeless narrative that so often surrounds this disease.
“A parent may not recognize their child anymore when they visit, but they’re telling stories about their children through the back of their painting,” says Lisa Steffen.