Three framed paintings hang in the living room of Marilyn and Glen Walton’s home. Glen is in the advanced stages of dementia, but Marilyn often sees her husband standing in front of those colourful pictures, exclaiming, “I did that!”
Over the past two years, Glen has taken part in the Opening Minds Through Art (OMA) program through the Alzheimer Society of Calgary’s Club 36 adult day program, delivered in partnership with Alberta Health Services. Working side-by-side with a nursing student, he has reconnected with his creativity and crafted art entirely his own.
“People with dementia often don’t have a lot that they’re really proud of accomplishing on their own,” says Marilyn. “This is something they can do. There’s no anxiety with it, and they can accomplish something that doesn’t rely on memory.”
Elizabeth Lokon, a senior research associate at the Scripps Gerontology Centre at Miami University, founded OMA in 2007. Ali Cada is the director of the Adult Day Programs at the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. He discovered OMA while searching for programs that would be mentally and physically engaging for people living with dementia. Cada trained with Lokon at Miami University and launched the first OMA program in Calgary in 2014.
“Many facilities tend to overlook the remaining abilities of people with dementia,” says Cada.
“You cannot assume that just because someone has dementia, they cannot learn new things. So I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do things — a better way to do art instead of just making crafts.’”
An important part of the OMA program is the partnership with the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Nursing program. For three years, Julie Burns and Christine Foran, nursing practice instructors with the program, have used the art medium of OMA to establish positive experiences between second-year nursing students and people living with dementia. Foran describes the partnership as beneficial.
“The students find the art a medium conducive to relationship building,” Foran says. “They become less focused on worrying about which topics are safe, but instead use the art process to steer the conversation. They get creative with strategies to build on their clients’ decision making skills and sense of accomplishment. They learn so much in such a short amount of time about building trust and creating successful and positive experiences for their clients. These skills will stay with them when helping people with dementia in any care setting.”
The feedback from the nursing students has been equally positive.
“I’ve learned different strategies to use with my ‘Artner,’” shares U of C nursing student Ramna Tahir. “This week he was getting frustrated because the paint was moving very slowly — so I brought up the tortoise and the hare story, and we talked about how the two lines of flowing paint were racing each other — and that made his mood better. I think this gave him a different perspective and got rid of his frustration. We were then able to laugh over little jokes about the tortoise and the hare.”
“OMA brings a change of perspective,” says Cada. “It stops the assumption that people with dementia can’t do anything. It answers the question of — they have dementia, but what else can they do?”
Since its launch, Cada says the program has impacted at least 150 people, and that number is growing. The Alzheimer Society of Calgary received a grant, and in May 2017, they were able to certify 32 more facilitators in Alberta through the Miami University.
“The change you see is indescribable,” says Cada. “This is the kind of art that should be in all long-term care facilities because this art honours them and recognizes that they’re a person — it shows that they’re still here.” [ ]