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Art helps dementia patients

Bob Pheatt moves his hand along the smooth metal. Alvina Alvarez knocks on it with her knuckles.
“They had to arc weld that from the inside,” Bob says confidently, admiring Tempe artist Gary Slater’s stainless steel sculpture in the Scottsdale Civic Center mall.
Bob, a retired industrial engineer, knows what he’s talking about. But on other matters, his memory isn’t what it used to be.
The sculpture is the last stop on an outdoor tour led by Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art docent Beryl Sherman. And it’s the final gathering for this inaugural Arts Engagement Program of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute.
A group of five people with early to mid-stage dementia and their caregivers have been meeting to discuss art and create art at the museum. Other groups have been attending a concert series at the Phoenix Symphony and touring the Phoenix Art Museum.
“Just because you have the disease of dementia, doesn’t mean you’ve lost your ability to have fun,” says Vicki McAllister, program coordinator for the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute. “We want to keep them engaged and having fun together.”
McAllister and the institute will measure results during the two-year program to see whether the experiences improve quality of life and daily functioning. Other research has shown that participating in the arts can be beneficial for people with dementia.
They are active, focused on something other than their disease and may be trying something new. They are exercising their brains. And they are interacting with art and with people in positive ways.
The outings also broaden relationships between people with dementia and their caregivers, offering opportunities to relax and enjoy each other. In the face of this devastating diagnosis, the program helps them build memories and experiences they can draw on when times get tougher.
“It’s two hours where we enjoy each other and we laugh,” says Lina Alvarez of Scottsdale, who attended the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art workshops with her mother, Alvina.
“Having someone ask her opinions, and to hear her answers. She can be so insightful,” Lina says. “She’ll say things that I hadn’t even thought of. I’m really proud of her.”
Unlike a handful of other arts engagement programs, including one at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, Banner and the participating venues bring out people during normal operating hours. In this way, the disease is normalized and they are fully engaged in the community, mingling with other patrons.
“You have this image of what it’s like to have dementia,” Lina says. “I didn’t expect it to be such a vibrant, alive group.”
Animated conversations
Indeed, there were animated conversations about flowers, horses and steel sculptures. When the tour moved inside the Scottsdale Center for the Arts to view a high school photography exhibit, comments flowed about dreams and fears and love.
The exhibit, “Cultivating Commonalities,” juxtaposed the work of teen photographers from Ghana with those of metropolitan Phoenix students, including kids from Gilbert and Coronado high schools, all answering the same questions with their photos.
“This one says, ‘when are you the happiest,’” Bob says with a grin. “But Esther’s picture isn’t on there.”
The group settled into a conference room to make their own collages of photos they’d taken during their previous visit.
Bob carefully cropped off the corners of his photos, glued them into place just so, engineer-like, then, unsatisfied with their placement, pulled them up and moved them slightly. He placed a photograph of Esther in the center.
Bob, 85, was diagnosed two years ago with Alzheimer’s disease after going through a bout with depression. In addition to the arts program, Bob and Esther attend Alzheimer’s Association groups at the Via Linda Senior Center.
“This is the beginning and I know it’s going to get worse,” Esther says. “But so far so good.”
More than 5 million people, including about 78,000 in Arizona, have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. By 2010, nearly 100,000 Arizonans will be afflicted with the progressive neurological disorder. Nearly half of people 85 years or older have some type of dementia.
As difficult as it is to imagine her mother slowly drifting away, Lina says the arts program has helped her to live in the now.
“You can regret what’s going to be. You can grieve the future,” she says. “Or you can appreciate this person every minute, where they are.”

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