Art program sparks camaraderie among people with dementia


Anita Anderson tries on a mask she created in Art Sparks, an art program designed for people with memory loss and their care providers at the Paramount Center for the Arts earlier this year.

In just a few hours a week, a Paramount Arts program sparked camaraderie, conversation and connection among people with dementia and their care providers.

The nonprofit arts organization ran a pilot project using local artists and volunteers earlier this year. It succeeded and could be offered to a wider audience.

Jane Oxton, director of education and outreach for the Paramount Center for the Arts, said the project confirmed there was a need for this kind of program and that it was effective for both the person with memory loss and the person caring for them.

“It was the most beautiful expression of love that I think I have ever seen,” she said. “There was a lot of camaraderie that came out among care providers.”

Jim Peterson participated in the pilot with his wife Linda. Linda was diagnosed two years ago with Alzheimer’s disease and is still in early stages of memory loss. Jim is her primary caregiver.

“I look at that every day you’re learning something. … This is just another adventure in your life and in your journey,” he said. “This is your journey with your spouse.”

Peterson heard about the program from their daughter, who saw a post online.

Linda had always been active with art and enjoyed the classes.

“It’s very relaxing for both the individual and the caregiver,” he said. “It was like, is it time to leave already? … You kind of lose track of what’s going on … because you’re so busy with your art project.”

Jim said he’s the furthest thing from an artist — a banker in charge of a loan department — but he found himself enjoying the classes.

“I think it’s really a good break from your everyday routine,” he said.

The same was true for his wife.

“It’s something for them to look forward to,” he said. “As soon as she knew she was going in the morning, she was very pleased to be going.”

The program especially worked well to keep the couple active during the long winter months. Their hobby farm in Annandale keeps them busy in nice weather.

At the end of the pilot project session, participants were surveyed and they all said they would return if it was offered again.

“Being in an environment where people are trained to not continually ask questions that require memory to answer creates kind of a safe environment,” Oxton said. “People reported growing confidence that ‘I can contribute.’ ”

The Paramount first heard about the idea from a news story, and they asked, why can’t we have this here?Dementia

Renee Buttweiler holds artwork she created in Art Sparks, an art program designed for people with memory loss and their care providers, at the Paramount Center for the Arts earlier this year.

Oxton spent six months meeting with local groups that work on dementia and memory loss, nursing homes and memory care units. All said there was a need, especially for people with memory loss who live at home, as they can get isolated.

“When you’re living at home, it’s hard to find ways to use the time in the day,” Oxton said.

Local experts also say there will likely be more of this population at home, as care facilities likely won’t have space to keep up with the need.

Including the care provider in the program was very important, Oxton said.

“That is a very major, life-changing role for people. For them to feel supported was equally important,” she said.

Many were spouses, some were children, others were professional care providers or friends. Care providers can help their loved ones or work on a project of their own.

The time is structured in three parts.

First, the group will look at some art and talk about what ideas or memories it sparks. Usually, they look at the exhibits showing at the Paramount’s galleries.


Jim and Linda Peterson work on art projects as part of Art Sparks, an art program designed for people with memory loss and their care providers at the Paramount Center for the Arts earlier this year. Linda was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease two years ago.

Organizers engage people with memory loss in a way that doesn’t require long-term memory or a right answer.

“There are strategies to pull stories out and encourage vocabulary and laughter,” Oxton said.

“Everybody in the room has different degrees of knowledge,” about art, Jim said. “Some of it would trip some memories.”

Second, they break for some conversation and food.

Jim and Linda connected with others going through the same thing. People had different degrees of dementia and memory loss, so they could see what to expect in the future.

“It’s a good thing to go to and … see that you’re not the only one in it,” he said. “You’re not the only person that’s the caregiver.”

“The volunteers and staff were great people. They kept you involved. They wouldn’t let you slack off,” he said. “It almost started to feel like you were with family for a while.”

Finally, all participants can attempt an art project themselves, using a variety of media.

Sometimes the work triggers an interest the person with dementia already had, but had let go or had forgotten how to do.

“We invited people to bring things they had made in earlier days,” she said, as many had previously painted, knitted or done craft projects.

“When they went back home, they had a renewed interest in doing that again,” she said.

One woman in the pilot program used to knit intricate sweaters. Through the pilot project, she rediscovered knitting.

“She had to relearn how to do a basic knitting stitch,” she said. But it gave her the confidence that she could still contribute to the world, Oxton said.

The artists also give ideas on how to do these kinds of projects at home, and the program offers materials to help. Sometimes, that’s as simple as an adult coloring book.

Relationships developed in the program have extended beyond, she said.

“The older I get, the more I understand … the power of the arts to address so much and to be a part of our lives in many ways,” Oxton said.

The pilot project was funded by the Central Minnesota Arts Board. The CentraCare Health Foundation is funding future sessions. Other agencies have also donated money for the program. Funds cover supplies, staffing, administrative time and food.

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If you go …

What: Art Sparks

When: 10 a.m.-noon Thursdays, for five weeks.

  • Session one: Sept. 14-Oct. 12, artist Solveig Anderson.
  • Session two: Jan. 25-Feb. 22, artist Linda Addicott.
  • Session three: April 5-May 3, artist Paula Benfer.
  • Session four: May 31-June 28, artist LeeAnn Goerss.

To register: Visit Cost is $10 for all five session and both participants. Add names of person with dementia and care provider when you register. Space is limited to 10 pairs per session.

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