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Art therapy helps Alzheimer’s patients

Tue., Nov. 10, 2009, midnight

Monica Leon Galarza, left, a nursing assistant, helps Archie, a resident, make a collage during Memories in the Making Art program at Patriots Colony in the Alzheimer’s Unit in Williamsburg, Va., on  Oct. 15.McClatchy Tribune (McClatchy Tribune / The Spokesman-Review)
Monica Leon Galarza, left, a nursing assistant, helps Archie, a resident, make a collage during Memories in the Making Art program at Patriots Colony in the Alzheimer’s Unit in Williamsburg, Va., on Oct. 15.McClatchy Tribune (McClatchy Tribune / The Spokesman-Review)

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – Archie flips through the pages of a National Geographic magazine, looking for photos that remind him of favorite faraway places.

“Did you travel much when you were in the service?” Marjorie Hilkert asks Archie, a retired two-star general.

“Yes,” he replies, still turning the pages.

When Archie, 80, finds a water scene he likes, nursing assistant Monica Leon Galarza cuts it out. Using a glue stick, Archie pastes the page onto a collage he’s making.

Archie and eight residents in the Memory Care Unit at Patriots Colony in Williamsburg, Va., use pages from magazines to create collages during a Memories in the Making art program. The weekly, hourlong art sessions with clay, watercolors and other media are designed to focus on what they can recall.

“A person with diminished verbal skills can still communicate through many creative expressions,” says Hilkert. She completed the Alzheimer’s Association’s Memories in the Art training program and leads the sessions at Patriots Colony. She also runs an Alzheimer’s Caregiver Support Group at Morningside Assisted Living and is incoming chairman of the Peninsula Alzheimer’s Leadership Council.

“We ask open-ended questions while they look at the magazines and write down what they say. We share those notes with the families, so it helps them know what their loved one remembers. It’s a way for everyone to communicate.”

Hilkert knows firsthand how art stimulates the memory and communication skills in people who have Alzheimer’s disease. After her father was diagnosed with the condition in 2002, an art facilitator at an Alzheimer-based day care center in Florida discovered his ability to paint.

“Before the age of 89, he’d never even picked up a paint brush,” says Hilkert. Her father, 92, and mother, 90, now live in Williamsburg.

“The paintings are beautifully composed, colorful and evoke a tender moment in his memory. His daughters now know where their own artistic tendencies come from – before, they had no clue.”

Her father’s paintings also help a good cause. His family duplicated four of his artistic creations on notecards they sell in a boxed set of eight. All proceeds from the $15 packet benefit the Alzheimer’s Association; so far, $6,000 has been raised.

At Patriots Colony, Hilkert circles the room, briefly visiting each patient while he or she works on a collage. A staff member sits with each, cutting out magazine pages, asking questions and taking notes.

Helen, 87, looks through Traveler and Good Housekeeping magazines. She pauses when she sees pictures of beaches and boys.

“I was a little girl at Virginia Beach,” she says, pointing to a photo of sand and surf.

Asked if she wants to cut out a photo with girls in it, Helen adamantly shakes her head no.

“I had three sons, I’m not into pictures of girls,” she says firmly. “I want pictures with boys in them – I’ve always loved boys.”

On this particular art day, the sky outside the workroom is cloudy, something that can impact moods in Alzheimer’s patients, according to Hilkert.

“When it’s a sunny day, their moods are a little more elevated,” she says.

Indoors, Hilkert does everything she can to make the environment happy and uplifting. Soothing music plays in the background. Bright orange and yellow cloths cover the tables. Clay art they did in an earlier class is displayed on a table, and more art hangs by clothespins on a cord strung across the room.

One patient sits and watches quietly, his body leaning away from the table. He looks but never talks while a caretaker cuts out photos and tries to engage his interest.

“Sometimes they don’t want to participate but the socialization is just as important,” explains Hilkert.

Then there are those like retired engineer Dick, 75, who eagerly participates, making a collage with photos of people and animals. He names it “Mis Amigos.”

“They are my friends,” he says, proudly pointing to the collection of images he holds up. Everyone in the room applauds.

Once all the collages are finished, Hilkert goes around the room so others can show off their artwork and announce what they’ve named their pieces.

Archie calls his “Wonderful Collage.”

Helen titles hers “Childhood Happiness.”

“When I was a little girl, I learned to swim there,” she says of Virginia Beach. “It’s the only beach I knew.”

Hilkert ’s father no longer paints because his disease has progressed too far. Comforted by the fact that her father tapped into his inner talents, she wants other victims of Alzheimer’s to experience the same success.

“There is absolutely nothing so gratifying as seeing the residents’ faces light up when you show the class their artwork and have them all applaud,” she says. “There is such pride in their accomplishment, often something that might be missing from their lives since living with Alzheimer’s.”

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