According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 6 million Americans are living with dementia, a memory disease affecting language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities, severe enough to interfere with daily life.
The disease and the memory loss associated with it can be very hard on the individual as well as their loved ones. Countless research efforts are being done to find causes, cures and relief for those affected by dementia.
Lindsey Buddelmeyer, the leadership education and training specialist with the Blanchard Valley Health System (BVHS), is a researcher of dementia who is putting forth an exceptional effort to help community members and families affected by dementia, by utilizing a surprising approach: art.
Five years before Buddelmeyer was involved with BVHS, she was working with the University of Findlay as an occupational therapist with a specialty in dementia research. After being asked by a colleague for a piece of artwork that could demonstrate her palliative model of care for patients with dementia, three canvas pieces were created by a patient that portrays the impact of the disease on the patient and her family.
During the creation of these pieces, Buddelmeyer had stopped in to see how the painting was going for her patient.
“I popped in a couple of times as they were working on these pieces and my patient, who at the time I would say was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, was standing there painting, laughing and listening to music,” Buddlemeyer said. “The room was just alive.”
After seeing the beauty in both the artistic process and the finished product, she knew there was something more to be explored.
Buddelmyer then reached out to The University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum, where Ben Sapp, museum director, was enthusiastic about displaying these paintings in a way that shared the life behind them with the whole community. The pieces were displayed in the museum for everyone to enjoy, but also to represent the impact and difficulty of the disease overall.
Unsurprisingly, Buddelmeyer and Sapp wanted to continue to expand and evolve the project to reach more of the community’s residents with dementia and their families, and thus the 1-2-3 Remember Me exhibit was born.
Currently, the program operates in a collaboration between BVHS and Mazza Museum, using picture books and children’s literature to give Birchaven Village residents with dementia an opportunity to illustrate their memories.
“We like to pull into the long-term memory retrieval and who they were before their illness that they can’t necessarily articulate to you, or see from a superficial interaction with them,” Buddlemeyer said. “The point is to use the children’s book as a vessel to open up conversation, tap into memories and go wherever they want to go.”
Assisting the residents with dementia in tapping into their cherished memories is special for the resident, their families and the volunteers helping with the process. Not only that, the action of creating the art is a great way to engage and keep the mind active for these residents, Luke Boggs, the BVHS activity coordinator, said.
“You know, a lot of the residents that come down will say ‘Oh, I’m not an artist.’ But it’s not about being an artist,” Boggs said. “It’s about creating a memory and thinking of those memories, and if it doesn’t come out exactly, it’s alright because it’s still beautiful.”
For families with loved ones with dementia, this is a meaningful way for them to connect and cope with the adversity involved with the disease. Ben Sapp shared a touching story in this regard.
“There was a man standing out looking at the exhibit one morning when I was coming into the office, and there were tears coming down the sides of his cheeks,” Sapp recalled. “I stopped to speak with him and he said, ‘You know, this is my dad’s work. I go visit him before I go to work every morning and I stopped to see him on my way home every night. There are days that he doesn’t remember me seeing him that morning.’”
This is an experience shared by many families in the dementia community. The work that BVHS and the Mazza Museum is doing offers a way to connect the residents and their families through the art.
“It’s just it’s such a difficult disease and we are just kind of elated and grateful that it’s something that we get to work with daily,” Sapp said. “That these original illustrations and these picture books can be used in this creative way to help families to cope and to bring back memories and conversations – things that they are fond of.”
To learn more about the 1-2-3 Remember Me exhibit, visit birchaven.org and mazzamuseum.org. To volunteer, visit bvhealthsystem.org/education-resources/volunteers/volunteers.