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Giving back what Alzheimer's took

Published July 18, 2007


On a recent morning, nine people sat at a table on a mission of patience and love.

They were there for family - mothers, fathers, sisters, wives and grandmothers - to learn a way to help their loved ones release locked up feelings

The key in the lock? Art.

The program, Memories in the Making Training for Caregivers, is sponsored and taught by the Alzheimer's Association. It is associated with Memories in the Making, which tries to teach patients to express through art what they can no longer express through words. Both programs are hosted by assisted living centers throughout the country.

Lisa Milne, regional program director of the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, led the program last week in the Arden Courts Alzheimer's Assisted Living facility of Seminole.

She described Memories in the Making as an activity caregivers can to do at home, adding that the association encourages caregivers to attend the training program. Patients can use pencils, markers and paint "to get their feelings out on paper," Milne said. Such routines "reduce anxiety ... which then can improve behavior," she said.

She told her audience to not be unsettled by broken, fragmented lines and incomplete use of space on paper. Milne passed around a binder full of examples of absence of details, body parts, no baseline and poor organization. Caregivers should join the patients in doing the artwork if the patient encounters difficulty.

Milne stressed the importance of the patients' artistic freedom. "Don't interfere " she said. "If they want to use the marker, let them use the marker." She discouraged the use of crayons, however, which she said can make patients feel as if they are being treated like a child. A few hands went up.

"What if they like them?"

"If they like them, that is fine," she said.

Milne also advised caregivers to avoid buying prefabricated materials such as coloring books and paint-by-numbers kits. These can frustrate the patients and make them feel degraded. Also, depending on what stage of the disease they're in, the patient may not be able to stay within the lines of coloring-book illustrations. "What we're trying to do is stimulate their brains, not make them color in the lines," she said.

This is a failure-free activity, Milne stressed.

Respect the patients' artwork, Milne said, don't analyze it. Sometimes, she warned, patients may make up a story explaining a piece of art to compensate for their memory loss. She said to let them speak. "We want them to explain what they produced and why."

Before they began painting, Milne asked everyone to stand. She directed them to turn their head to the right and place their right hand on their left shoulder. She then had them do it the other way. She explained that this exercise helped to stimulate both long-term and short-term memory.

Milne then asked the caregivers to draw the same thing on six pieces of paper, each in a different medium. The purpose of this activity was to determine which medium each person was most comfortable with. Milne spoke about structured materials, such as pencils and markers. It gives one a sense of control, she said. Moderate materials such as pastels and watercolor don't provide patients with as much control.

Milne passed a cup around and asked each caregiver to pick a folded slip of paper. Written on each slip was an emotion. Caregivers were to express the emotion through their preferred medium without using concrete symbols and human figures. "Use lines, shapes and colors to express that emotion that you have on that paper," she said.

Lee La Rosa of Belleair Beach used markers to draw two black clouds with rain falling. Everyone taped their pieces on a wall and guessed which emotion each represented. La Rosa's emotion was sadness.

"For sadness, you may look for blues and greens. For excitement, it'll be the brighter colors," Milne said. "For anger, reds and blacks normally."

La Rosa, who retired about four years ago to take care of her mother full time, said the program taught her a new way of communication with her mother, diagnosed three years ago.

"Some things that she can't verbalize, it's almost like communicating from within her," she said. "I can see what she's feeling and thinking."

Ginny Leeds from St. Petersburg attended the program because of her older sister, diagnosed about eight years ago. "Anything that I can do to help my sister and anything that's available to help others, I think is a wonderful thing," she said. "If this will give five, 10 minutes, half-hour or an hour of happiness and some type of fulfillment in her life, that would be wonderful."

Some works by Alzheimer's patients will be in the annual Memories in the Making art auction, not yet scheduled. Proceeds will go to the Alzheimer's Association.

While Lee La Rosa drew, her mother created art in another room with the residents. Titled Green Meadows, it was a small rectangular painting with green watercolor strokes. Milne suggested that La Rosa's mother was most likely at peace at that time.

"With the colors that she used today, which were green, I know that she's at peace," La Rosa said. "I know that she's feeling peaceful and happy."

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[Last modified July 17, 2007, 20:56:00]

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