August 18. 2018 9:13PM

Silver Linings: Creating art unlocks patients from isolation of Alzheimer's

By ROBERTA BAKER
New Hampshire Union Leader


Doris Ouellette concentrates on her paint strokes during the Thursday class at the adult day care program. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - Three Wednesdays a month at Easterseals New Hampshire's center for adult day care on Auburn Street, 10 to 12 students with Alzheimer's disease are steeped in artistic expression.

There is no pressure to remember, keep track, prepare - or even closely follow the example clipped to an easel at the front of the room: a painting of a single poppy with a starburst center, inspired by a famous work by Georgia O'Keeffe.

Tom Knight, 71, spreads royal blue inside a cloud shape drawn on his placemat-sized paper. He's been silent and stooped since the start of class. He shakily scrawled his first name with coaching. But after filling in the background and brushing in a lavender silhouette, he pipes, "It's a walrus on a seashore."

"I can almost smell the salt water," program aide Barbara Sargent says.

"They always come up on the beach," Knight says. "They have them on the History Channel."

For Knight and others in the room, art-making brings joy, pride, calm, a sense of accomplishment and the sparking of neurons in a section of the brain apart from the memory and planning centers ravaged by Alzheimer's.

Art therapy initiatives such as the Currier Museum and NH Easterseals Art and Cafe Program introduce new experiences, artistic stimulation and social interaction to people increasingly locked in their own worlds with dwindling language skills to express themselves.

At the next table, two sisters, Connie Gravel, 75, and Muriel Bretton, 78, lean back in their chairs, admiring their pieces.

"It looks like an angry cloud," says Gravel, grinning. "I like blending it in."

"Lovely, lovely," Bretton says. "I didn't know we could do things like this. We leave with something nice."

"Ya think so?" Bretton says. "It's fun to do, and every time you do it, it gets better."

Betty Blanchard, 77, seated across the table, has framed the images she completed here and given them to her grandchildren. "It's a good pastime, and they love it. They hang it in their room," she says.

Nearby, Mary Denker, 86, finishes flourishes on a page-sized poppy. At the start of her disease, Denker could immerse herself in designing and painting a full page without prodding, according to Easterseals staff. Now assistants help her decide what part to paint next, and frequently what color to use. 

At the middle to later stages of Alzheimer's disease, patients can lose initiative and the automatic, inner sense of what to do next, sometimes becoming stymied after a single step, staff explains. Despite her illness, Denker continues to paint at home - "anything I feel like. I've been painting since I was about 14 years old," she says, smiling.

"We're setting everyone up for success, so everyone is able to do the project, and there's plenty of room for personal expression," says Corie Lyford, outreach coordinator for the Currier's Art Center. 

"As people do their art, they really get into it, and that sparks conversation with their neighbors at the table" as well as with Easterseals and Currier staff. There's a surprising variety and level of skill, Lyford says.

"It's validated what we've felt all along. It's never too late to learn new things, whether you have a chronic disease or not," says Laurie Duff, director of senior services for Easterseals New Hampshire, the state's largest provider of adult day care for seniors with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. "It's really empowering for them to see what they've made. They may not remember making it later that day or the next. But they really like that painting when they see it. Confidence and self-esteem are rarely lost. And the ability to smile and engage is rarely lost."

The Currier Museum has tracked patient responses since the program's inception in 2015 and found that studio art sessions increase social engagement, all but eliminate disruptive or anxious behaviors during art-making and prompt more conversations at home. 

Especially popular has been working with clay, shown to be beneficial to older adults, including those with Alzheimer's and dementia, who find the tactile experience engrossing and calming. The Easterseals students have made bowls fired in the art center's kiln, painted to resemble watermelons, and enjoyed sharing them with family members.

A cat sculpture by a typically silent patient triggered a conversation with his middle-aged son. "It looks like the cat you had when you were a child," the older man says.

"I didn't even think he could remember that," his son told program staff.

Dominique Boutaud of Nashua, an artist, art teacher and certified dementia practitioner, gives classes to Alzheimer's and dementia sufferers in hospitals and nursing homes, in hospice care and at home. She teaches abstract painting because there are no rules to learn or remember. 

"When you create, you turn on your brain. You train your brain. You're not passive," says Boutaud, who begins and ends each session with a childhood song in English or French, depending on the student's mother tongue, because the second language erodes first as the disease progresses. Those who came from Quebec often lose the ability to communicate with grown sons and daughters who never learned French, and that only increases their isolation, she says.

"Art-making is a way to express themselves and find connection and well-being," Boutaud says. "They also stress less. They don't need to take as much medication as when they're stressed." 

Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire's aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Roberta Baker would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at rbaker@unionleader.com or (603) 206-1514. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging. This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.