JAA’s ‘We Are Art!’ prompts memories, creativity for those with dementia

JAA’s ‘We Are Art!’ prompts memories, creativity for those with dementia

The Anathan Club hopes to help members connect with memories and tap into their creative instincts by discussing a work of art and creating their own drawing or written narrative.

A professional artist who focuses on community transformation encourages memories through art at the Anathan Club.
 (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
A professional artist who focuses on community transformation encourages memories through art at the Anathan Club. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)

For members of the Anathan Club, there is no right or wrong way to make art.

And that’s the point, according to Maritza Mosquera, a professional artist who focuses on community transformation. The curriculum she has developed for the Anathan Club, a daytime program for adults with dementia and other memory impairments run by the Jewish Association on Aging, aims to help its members connect with memories, and tap into the creative instincts that remain within.

Mosquera has significant experience working with elders as well as developing community engagement programs, including at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Alternative Education in Prison program. She developed the “We Are Art!” program in collaboration with the JAA.

The Anathan Club is a mixed group. Some members are non-verbal, while others are eager to contribute to a conversation sparked one recent day by some Currier & Ives riverside prints of New York. A few of the members had been active artists themselves before dementia or other impairments robbed them of particular memories, while others had little prior interest in drawing or painting.

But this day, everyone in the room was an artist.

“All right, you guys, we have art to make,” Mosquera decreed with an infectious enthusiasm after she personally greeted each of the 16 men and women seated around the tables in the Anathan Club. Mosquera took the Currier & Ives prints around the table so that everyone could have a closer look. She asked each member what he or she saw in the images, and what they liked about them.

One member commented on “the water, the swimming,” another mentioned the boats and “people fishing,” while another had spied “a little house” and wondered aloud what the people inside are having for dinner. That spurred further conversation, as those around the table speculated about the food: fish, corn, maybe beans.

“It all goes back to what they remember,” Mosquera explained in an interview. “And the more they look at the picture, the more they go into the whole story line.”

After the members delved deeper into the tales the prints tell, Mosquera passed out paper, pencils and brush markers and the artists got to work.

“They get to choose anything in the image they want to explore,” Mosquera explained. “Some say they don’t know where to start, so I might say, ‘How about that tree?’”

The art the members of the club created ranged from abstractions to more realistic designs. Not everyone wanted to draw, and those who did not were encouraged to instead narrate a story about what they saw in the prints, which was transcribed on paper by art therapy intern Liz Powell.

“Some people like the storytelling better than drawing, but I consider storytelling art, too,” Powell said.

Maritza Mosquera, top, a professional artist who focuses on community transformation, encourages memories through art at the Anathan Club. (Photo by Toby Tabachnick)
In addition to providing a means to allow the club members to create their own art, Mosquera also takes them on outings to museums and galleries, where they look at masterpieces explained by docents and get a chance to talk about their own impressions of the works. Recent excursions have included the Mattress Factory and the Carnegie Museum of Art.

“Bringing them out into the community is huge from a dementia standpoint,” explained Amy Dukes, the JAA’s memory care liaison. Having dementia can be isolating, and it’s important that “people with dementia can still be part of the community.”

The Anathan Club is “about engagement,” noted the club’s manager Lori O’Brien. “And art is a large component of our program.”

The JAA began its art program at the request of a donor. While “We Are Art!” is currently running solely in the Anathan Club, O’Brien sees the possibility of it being extended to other facets of the JAA.

“We wanted the program to be educational, and we wanted it to be replicable in other areas of the JAA,” she said. “Maritza has made the template.”

O’Brien has seen the positive effects that art can have on those with dementia.

“It’s calming,” she said. “Alzheimer’s is a lot about mood. If they have a great experience at a museum, or working on art, that feeling stays with them.

“So, it helps not only in the moment, but when they get home.”

Scientific research into the effects of art on dementia patients is scarce, but there is copious anecdotal evidence showing that it can improve self-esteem, temperament and quality of life.

The movement to infuse art into programming for the memory impaired was galvanized in 2009 with the release of the documentary film “I Remember Better When I Paint,” which showed how non-pharmaceutical methods in the arts could help treat and stimulate people with Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders. The film illustrates how the arts can help transgress the limits of dementia, and was inspired by Hilda Goldblatt Gorenstein, the mother of one of the filmmakers and an Alzheimer’s patient; Gorenstein, who had a career as a noted artist before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, experienced an improvement in speech and mobility when she began to paint again.

Although it can be challenging to obtain hard data about the effects of art therapy, some researchers nonetheless agree there could be a benefit.
“Art may improve quality of life for patients and caregivers, even if temporarily,” Sam Gandy of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, told Alzforum, a news website aiming to help advance the development of diagnostics and treatments for memory disorders. “Anything that brings respite and joy into their lives is worth a shot while we are chasing down the science.”

The “We Are Art!” program allows club members to explore additional genres of art, including poetry, drumming and architecture. The drawings and paintings they create are displayed in a gallery in the Anathan Club.

The program is supported by The Sylvia & Martin Snow Family Fund, PNC Charitable Trusts, Ladies Hospital Aid Society, the Jack Buncher Foundation, and individual donors. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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