Most who have had a friend or relative with Alzheimer’s or dementia knows how trying neurodegenerative diseases are, both for the afflicted and those around them. Memories are lost and simple interactions can lead to confusion. In a relatively new method of helping these types of patients, the Sun Valley Center for the Arts has offered a six-week program of free, museum-based art therapy that it calls “Stepping Out of the Frame.”
The program was designed specifically for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, but is open to anyone suffering a neurodegenerative disorder. Started on July 23, the program meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays through Thursday, Aug. 29, at The Center in Ketchum. Run by the center’s Art Therapist & Enrichment Educator Jordyn Dooley, each session focuses on a different activity or directive as well as a way of interacting with the center’s current exhibition, Mirage: Energy, Water and Creativity in the Great Basin.
Dooley first came to The Center as an enrichment educator, working mostly at local schools. Her Master’s in art therapy that she received from Florida State University, one of the first schools to use museum-based art therapy, gave her the idea to present a therapeutic art program for people in Sun Valley who suffer from neurodegenerative diseases.
“I saw while working in one of my practicums in grad school that it was really helpful for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia to be brought to museums,” Dooley said. “In our community, we’re fortunate that people are so open-minded and open to alternative types of medicine and approaches.”
The center was receptive to the idea, especially since there’s programming for families, toddlers, young adults, children and teens—but little to none for the elderly residents of the Sun Valley area.
Some of the benefits of art therapy as shown through various studies are improving cognitive and sensory motor functions, fostering self esteem and self awareness, cultivating emotional resilience, promoting insight, enhancing social skills and reducing and resolving conflicts. The museum becomes a safe space for participants to be free of stigma and to foster community.
“It can almost give people a blank slate to work with, it’s non-stigmatizing,” Dooley said. “The artwork also becomes this third party that people can interact with and relate to. They can project onto the artwork and memories can stem from looking at it. It can be an opportunity for them to reconnect and have memories resurface. It can also reduce anxiety because there’s no context needed; part of the creation of artwork and looking at artwork is to be able to connect with it in your own way.”
Most of the participants in Dooley’s program also attend with a caregiver, and the program has been an opportunity for patients and caregivers to build their relationships or connect in new ways.
About seven participants have come to each of the two-hour sessions, and they vary widely in why they’ve attended and their ailments. “John,” for example, had a skiing accident over a year ago and has been in physical therapy for a traumatic brain injury ever since. He also has Parkinson’s and has participated in programs similar to this. “Sharon” decided to participate in the program as well to put off any neurodegeneration that might happen to her.
“Both of my parents started having issues in their 90s. I’ll be 79 this year and want to get a jump on it and not lose it as badly as my mom. I thought it would be interesting. I’m here to find out what I can do like crosswords, puzzles and things that are recommended,” she said.
Each session focuses on The Center’s current art exhibition, Mirage: Energy, Water and Creativity in the Great Basin.
“It’s all about place and landscape and how landscapes change,” Dooley said. “What we’re exploring in these six weeks is this general theme of place and trying to think of memories in places and recall those.”
On the program’s first day, Dooley and the participants did an activity typically called a “safe space,” but was framed as a “happy” or “special memory” place. Each person identified a place either recent or in the past where they would go to feel calm, relaxed and happy. On the second day, the group began by looking at Laura McPhee’s work, Desert Chronicle, a collection of photographs of places invoking the history of the Great Basin.
“When you look at these images, it makes you wonder what’s happened there; they almost tell a story,” Dooley said.
The group spent time looking at the photos and being guided by Dooley through questions like what it would feel like to be in each photograph, what the temperature would be, what kind of textures one would feel and whether it reminded anyone of places they had been before.
The second part of the session was devoted to creating a “fragrance record,” something inspired by artist Cathleen Faubert’s Aromatic Landscapes. A table was set up with different smells and tactile surfaces like sage, mint, coffee, bell pepper and cloves for the participants to slowly sift through. Then, using essential oils and perfume bottles, the group tried to recreate their “happy places” in the form of a fragrance record or aromatic landscape.
“Hopefully it acts as something they can keep and smell to remember,” Dooley said. “Your olfactory senses are what is most connected to memory. Smelling it will hopefully alleviate anxiety if they’re triggered or feeling sad. It will hopefully bring them back to this relaxing place where they were really happy.”
This is but one example of the kind of projects Dooley has presented over the course of the program. Engaging in the art and physically creating art as well helps neurodegenerative patients to communicate differently, especially since communication may be declining.
“As the communication parts of the brain decline, the other parts make up for it and they’re able to interact more visually than maybe they had in the past,” Dooley said. “Art becomes a way that they can still interact and communicate. It’s another opportunity to project onto the paper or canvas or into the clay, to explore, to continue learning.”