It’s about so much more than painting.
Gaby West pulls her cart full of canvases, paint brushes, colorful tubes of paint and water cups down the hall of Serenades at West Orange, stopping at a room where a dozen or so memory-care residents are gathered on sofas and around the television. She speaks softly and kindly to each one, inviting him or her to create a piece of art.
Some go with her; others decline — but all are given the chance to stimulate their minds through art therapy.
West leads the Paint a Memory program at several West Orange County memory-care facilities through Artscape and sponsored by Winter Garden Art Association and Healthy West Orange. She spends about an hour in each session, assisting the seven or eight residents who join her for the hourlong program.
On a recent Tuesday, West led a painting session with six women, all at various levels of memory loss. They wielded their paint brushes and, with a deep concentration, added bright springtime colors to their flower paintings. A few asked for help, several said very few words as they worked diligently on their projects — but all of them ended up with beautifully crafted pieces of art that will join the other artwork that adorns the walls of Serenades.
Throughout the process, West visits with each artist, caressing a cheek or holding a hand or simply listening to their stories.
“With the residents, providing emotional support is also a kind of key factor that, I think, makes a huge difference in quality of life,” West said. “They know me, and having that connection is important too.
“The art program provides them with a way to still continue to express themselves,” West said. “Every painting you see, even if it’s been sketched out, they’re all a little bit different. … To be able to express that and to have some fun, it’s all part of living a healthy lifestyle. And it’s also a memory that families get to keep forever; it’s something they’ve made.”
STIMULATING THE MIND
The Paint a Memory program was started in 2018 at the SOBO Art Gallery by Elizabeth McKinney, co-founder of the WGAA.
She had taken care of her father, who was in an assisted-living facility, and understood the importance of brain stimulation in the elderly. West took care of her grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, in England many years ago.
The partnership took a natural course.
“It was something that touched both of our hearts and it was important to us,” West said.
Classes are held in facilities that are home to elderly residents, especially those with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The program originally took place at SOBO, West said, but after the pandemic, she and McKinney changed the format to take it to the residents. They received a grant from Healthy West Orange and are hoping to secure more funding to keep the program going.
“We do have some generous West Orange community members who can see what we’re doing with the program, and they value it, and we’re so incredibly thankful for it,” West said. “There are so many people we can reach with this work. … We’re hoping if we can secure more funding, there are several other facilities that need our help, and we hope to expand it.”
West offers five classes a week and would like to be able to double that with more funding. She also wants to train artists so even more classes can be provided to residents.
“I’ve noticed huge changes,” West said. “It shows you when I first started working with them and literally in about a month how far we’ve come if I’m here every week. … And it’s not just painting, it’s other skills where they are utilizing other hand-eye coordination.”
Linda Mena, executive director of Serenades, agreed with West.
“It’s so much more than art,” Mena said. “It’s the brain stimulation that they’re getting. Art therapy for dementia patients is so important.
“Studies show cognitive development will improve through art therapy techniques,” she said. “With Gaby’s program, it truly provides a way to stimulate their minds and helps them engage in activities more easily. Those classes are truly so much bigger than the paint brush and the canvas. It allows them to bring bold bright colors to life in their mind.”
During the holidays, residents made personal gifts, including Christmas ornaments and canvas art, for their family members.
“It was just so touching,” Mena said. “Our whole Serenades program is celebrating their abilities that are left, those they can still do, and not focus on what they can’t. No resident is the same, and no piece of art is the same.
“The thing with this too, people with dementia have trouble expressing their feelings … and this allows them to get their thoughts and feelings on canvas as well,” Mena said. “They enjoy it. Engaging in creative activities always enhances their moves and improves their general well-being.”