Creative Connections: Art as Escape from Alzheimer’s

BENTONVILLE, Ark. – Before Sue O’Neal’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, she taught art classes in the Experience Art children’s studio that she helped bring to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Now, instead of teaching art classes to youth, she attends art classes for victims of memory loss. 

“That was a great gig,” Sue said about teaching in the children’s studio. “I loved working with those kids. But then I couldn’t walk anymore. And then I couldn’t stand on my feet anymore.”

As Sue talks with the other individuals with Alzheimer’s and art instructors, she expresses her frustration with her dependence on others as the disease affects her mentally and physically.

“I have to have people help me with everything I do, and it’s depressing,” she said from her wheelchair. “I’m really at everyone else’s mercy right now. I can’t walk, and I can’t talk. I have to re-create myself all the time.”

An art instructor reminded her of the beauty and adventure of getting to re-create herself.

“It’s definitely an adventure,” Sue said. “But I’m getting better. Today is one of my best days because I’m here. I love coming here.”

Art is an age-old method of helping people express what they cannot put into words, as creating art involves a different part of the brain than does language. According to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation, research suggests that making and appreciating art may help to boost mood, stimulate memory, and ease common behavior symptoms of dementia such as anxiety and depression for individuals with Alzheimer’s.

The effects of artistic engagement give relief to both Alzheimer’s patients and the family members who take care of them.

Six years ago, Crystal Bridges collaborated with the Arkansas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association to establish Creative Connections, a program that offers social engagement, self-expression and stimulation for individuals in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and their care partners.

Tina Hunter, the Director of Programs for the Arkansas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, said that Creative Connections was created to provide an opportunity for people with Alzheimer’s to socialize and bond during artistic engagement.

“Art keeps their brain active and keeps them involved in the community,” Hunter said. “This program also gives those with Alzheimer’s an outlet to express themselves and an opportunity to connect with people who understand their struggles and are going through the same things that they are.”

Kim Crowell, the Senior Museum Educator and Accessibility Coordinator, leads the biweekly Creative Connections classes. The two-hour program typically entails an ice-breaker, a discussion of one of the museum’s gallery pieces and a hands-on art project.

As pairs of Alzheimer’s patients and their care givers trickled into the museum studio on a Monday afternoon, they greeted each other with hugs and updates. None of the attendees were newcomers to Crystal Bridges’ longest running program. 

Sue O’Neal was wheeled in by her husband, Tom. Sherry was accompanied by her daughter Nancy Grace. Ann Linkous sat quietly, smiling as her husband, Mark, entertained everyone sitting at the U-shaped tables.

The program began with an activity to exhibit how abstract art can illustrate emotion. As white paper and black sharpies circulated the room, Kim asked everyone to draw a single line to express how they’re feeling. 

Tom’s line began low on the page after a sleepless night. Sue admitted to keeping him awake.

“I wanted to snuggle,” Sue said, “and he wasn’t snuggling!”

The five pairs of Alzheimer’s patients and their care givers who attended Creative Connections on April 25 shared how they were feeling about the day after graphing it on paper. This activity kicked off a class about abstract art. Photo by Emily Franks.

Mark left a space between the end of his line and the edge of the paper, “because I don’t know which way it’ll go from here.” Ann needed a few more minutes to finish her line.

The theme of this week’s class was shapes and shadows, so the program attendees walked and wheeled into the Crystal Bridges gallery to study Night Zag Wall, a 108-square-foot display of arranged and painted wood by Louise Nevelson.

Individuals with Alzheimer’s and their care partners discussed Louise Nevelson’s Night Zag Wall at Crystal Bridges. Nevelson created the piece from 1969-1974. Photo by Emily Franks.

The abstract artwork was heavy and dark. Its busyness was overwhelming at first, but a harder look unveiled a calming order, Nancy Grace remarked.

Nevelson’s artwork spoke to each person differently. It reminded its spectators of day-to-day chaos. An art box, a junk drawer, a trash dump. The view looking down out of an airplane; the view looking up to the night sky. The craft section of Hobby Lobby, or a bookcase in the library. Crates of Florida oranges in the back of a pick-up truck. Dad’s old workshop. 

“It reminds me of my cluttered kitchen drawers,” Sue said. “There’s so much stuff that I can’t use it all. I can’t get to it all.”

Alzheimer’s prevents brain cells from operating effectively. As damage spreads, the dying cells cause irreversible changes in the brain. Sue’s mental files are like her kitchen drawers – her memories are cluttered, and she can’t get to all of them.

Creative Connection attendees debated which color they would paint the piece of art if it were their choice. Nevelson painted it black, a combination of all colors, to symbolize unity. Photo by Emily Franks.

Nancy Grace sensed movement in the piece. Tom wondered what it would be like if it were colorful. Kim explained that the beauty of abstraction was invited interpretation.

“Something that you see might look very different to someone else,” Kim said. “We all bring our own experiences to a work of art.”

Sherry saw one piece in the artwork as the back end of a bird taking off. As a bird-watcher and artist, she had painted watercolors and oils of birds for decades.

“I don’t do art anymore because I’ve moved to a senior living facility,” Sherry said. “But I’ve got a suet feeder that’s right out behind my window so that I can still watch birds.”

Sherry keeps a life count of how many bird species she’s seen. The number is over 300. She couldn’t remember exactly what it was.

After leaving the gallery and returning downstairs to Studio E, the program attendees used rectangular boxes, wooden figures and paint to make smaller, Nevelson-inspired sculptures of their own. 

Sue and Tom joked with each other as they worked on the activity. After 55 years of marriage, Sue said she’s not sick of Tom quite yet.

“I’ve enjoyed having Tom as a husband,” Sue said as she watched Tom try to navigate a hairdryer at the art drying station. “He’s a good husband. He’s growing into himself. He’s enjoying himself, and we’re enjoying our life together.”

Sue O’Neal painted her wooden sculpture white because she wanted something brighter than the black of Nevelson’s work. “It was a heavy piece,” Sue said. “But it had so many opportunities.” Photo by Emily Franks.

Sue reminisced on memories of she and Tom living in New Jersey, Virginia, and Texas. Before moving into an assisted living home, they moved frequently for Tom’s job as a hospital administrator. She wasn’t sure where they lived right now.

Mark Linkous tried to talk Ann into wearing an apron to protect her clothes, but the pink paint matched her shirt, so she wasn’t worried about it. Mark is used to her stubbornness, he said. He and Ann tied the knot as a 22- and 19-year-old who had dated for four months.

“We’re celebrating our 65th wedding anniversary in July,” Mark said. “We think it’s going to be permanent!”

On Valentine’s Day of 2014, Ann was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the same disease that Mark lost his mother to. Shortly after, Mark started his nonprofit, Sock It to Alzheimer’s, to raise awareness.

“Alzheimer’s has been a big part of my life,” Mark said. “That’s why I’m devoting the rest of whatever years I have left to fighting this disease.”

Mark Linkous started a nonprofit called Sock It to Alzheimer’s after someone commented on the socks he wears to raise awareness. Mark likes to sit with his pants raised up at dinner so people can see the socks and join the conversation, he said. Photo by Emily Franks.

When Ann was diagnosed, Mark didn’t want her to join a support group. He remembers how hearing about the problems to come from those in later stages had affected his mother, and he didn’t want to take Ann down that path. Looking for an alternative, he found Creative Connections, and the couple hasn’t missed a meeting since.

“This is a safe place to start,” Mark said. “Over the past few years, we’ve made great friends and connections here. There’s no pressure, nothing is depressing about it and everyone has a good time. It gives all of us an escape from the disease.”

Kim interrupted the artmaking to mention that Nevelson was a Russian artist who wore designer clothes and three sets of fake eyelashes. 

“No wonder she painted it black,” Sherry said. “She couldn’t see anything!” 

Everyone laughed as they painted.

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