‘Drawing on Memories’ aids Alzheimer’s patients

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 125 views 

For some a picture is worth a thousand words. But for the patients of Memory Lane Alzheimer’s Care Unit in Van Buren, it’s worth a lot more than that.

Hope. Smiles. A meadow of memories taking them back to a time when their worlds were new and fresh and full of innocence.

As they enter the room, shuffling forward like frightened children on the first day of school, you can’t help feeling a grip of emotion so overwhelming, so unexpected, that you want to cry out in despair for them.

Note that feeling. Now get rid of it.

This is not a place of despair. It’s not a place of sadness where those living in the “real world” shake their heads and their fists at a higher power for what their loved ones have become.

If that’s what you take away from it, then you aren’t watching closely enough.

“If you notice when the people come in, a few of them are in to themselves, and I love to see how the art brings them out. It’s like the cells that are still there, it gets those firing, and it makes them come alive,” said Vicki Anderson, a certified activity director for the Alzheimer’s Association Western Arkansas Regional Office.

Anderson is here to conduct “Drawing on Memories,” an art therapy session modeled after the program in Tulsa, Okla., which is designed to stimulate Alzheimer’s patients by getting them to use memories in the creation of original artwork.

“Drawing on Memories” takes place every third Thursday of the month at the Legacy Heights Retirement Center, the same building where Memory Lane is located, at 1012 Fayetteville Road.

It's also the same building where, if for just one hour per month, patients shrouded in the fog of Alzheimer's Disease can "come out of themselves and into the light," Anderson said.

But the light isn’t shining when they first enter the room and take their seats at an arrangement of tables. It’s not there when Anderson asks them if they remember the song “School Days” either. When she starts the music and begins to sing, it’s just a solo act.

“School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic
Taught to the tune of a hickory stick
You were my queen in calico
I was your bashful barefoot beau
And you wrote on my slate,
‘I love you so’
When we were a couple of kids.”

Anderson is nervous as she attempts the song on her own, hoping someone will chime in. It doesn’t take long for a tall man named Paul to join. The others soon follow.

Anderson compliments them at the end. The ice is broken, and she has her opening.

“Today we’re going to talk about our school days. Do any of you remember that readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic? How about the hickory stick?”

Trudy is a short woman seated to Anderson’s right. Her body is hunched and frail, but her voice is strong and still sparkles with all the joy of childhood.

“I remember the hickory stick,” she says, recounting a time she had “missed her spelling word” and was due “one lick.” Forced to pick out her own hickory stick, she tracked down the weakest one she could find and was thankful when it snapped before the teacher had a chance to use it.

“You’re lucky,” Paul cuts in. “I had to have three licks with a hickory stick. Except mine was more of a hickory pallet.”

For the next five minutes, Anderson uses Norman Rockwell illustrations as she guides the group into the past and helps them exhume their own memories.

Paul observes “Knuckles,” Rockwell’s illustration of a marble-loving little girl.

“That marble she’s shooting with was her special marble, and it was called a taw,” he tells Anderson. “T-a-w. It was a little larger than the others and maybe it was clear or something special to the holder. You could get it at the five-and-dime store with the dollar you got for Christmas.”

“And maybe a new dress,” Trudy adds.

Another Rockwell work, “Happy Birthday, Miss Jones,” features a tall and plain-looking woman standing at the head of the class with a row of presents lined up on her desk. Anderson questions the Memory Lane crew.

“Why does that little boy have an eraser on his head?” Because he’s a boy.

“What do you think are in those packages?” I hope it’s cookies.

“Rockwell was criticized for making the teacher look too plain. What do you think of Miss Jones?” The expression on her face is that of a kind lady.

For one of the last pictures, Anderson admits she “can relate to this one” as she shows the group “Girl with a Shiner,” showing a smiling schoolgirl at the principal’s office sporting a black eye. “What do you think she’s been up to?”

One resident believes she was talking. Trudy believes that “maybe one of the boys hit her.”

“No, a boy didn’t hit her,” Paul says. “I think another girl hit her. She’d been in a fight and got that bandage on her knee. And she won because she has that big grin on her face. That gives away she’s not really sorry.”

“I bet she won’t be grinning when she gets home,” another resident adds. “She’ll get another spanking.”

“Once was all it took back then,” Trudy says.

For the rest of the hour, Paul and Trudy and all the rest have the opportunity to create their own Rockwells. Last month they worked with water colors. This month it’s chalk-and-slate.

Some are more sure of themselves than others. Paul and Trudy don’t have any problems at all. The others are more reluctant, but their “class leaders” are the perfect sources of encouragement.

One woman — Janine — laments the loss of her artistic talent as she struggles to create an apple or a school or whatever she can create that will give her classmates a run for their money.

After several tries, she ends up with an empty field and misspells her name when it comes time to sign the artwork.

“I used to be able to draw so good,” she says. “Not anymore.”

Paul leans over and notices the problem right away. “That ain’t no problem. You just aren’t old enough yet, hon.”

Janine is flattered and for a moment she forgets about the slate and replaces it with a smile.

During the rest of the session, Walter, the resident who hoped one of the students gave his teacher cookies in the “Miss Jones” painting, gets to live out his wish.

Volunteers bring out a large platter of cookies and his eyes light up. As the hour draws to a close, Walter asks if he can have another and is pleased once more to discover that he can.

As the residents file out of the library, the hour drawn to a close, you hear one of them say, “I wish we could do this every day.”

And you know in that moment that no matter what they remember or what they forget, these are not empty vessels. Hope and humanity still reside. Maybe it takes more effort to bring it out of them.

Or maybe all it takes is a picture.