There's a cozy artists' studio located in the basement of Pittsfield's Ralph J. Froio Senior Center where, once a week, an intimate crowd of a half-dozen guests or so gathers around a table set with easels, sturdy sheets of paper, trays of watercolors and brushes neatly set out before them. For some, this place, the tools and these people are familiar. For others, despite the weekly routine, everything seems new.
Once seated, Kaye Shaddock, a young art therapist with a warm smile, patient demeanor and genuinely calming voice welcomes and gently guides each person through the process of art making. She kneels beside her seated seniors and offers pictures of landscapes and nature for their inspiration, asking them to consider their thoughts and feelings of what they're seeing and painting.
One woman almost always paints birds. Another man ponders how to create a pathway into the horizon. And another seems particularly fond of depicting the light and colors each new day is comprised of.
Like a coffee house, a carefully curated soundtrack of easy listening and soft jazz standards relaxes everyone in the room. On one recent April afternoon, Billie Holiday's voice evoked nostalgia as she crooned, "I'll be seeing you / In all the old familiar places / That this heart of mine embraces / All day and through / In that small cafe / The park across the way ..."
In no time, aging fingertips flutter to life, swirling brushes between water and paint, pressing lines and curves of color onto a once empty page, creating a tangible new chapter to remember life by.
This is "Memories in the Making," a program of the Alzheimer's Association internationally used as a tool to help people with Alzheimer's disease and other similar forms of dementia. It's designed to give those with impacted cognitive abilities a creative and emotional outlet that could improve self-esteem and focus; reduce isolation and reconnect loved ones by providing a new avenue for communication to tap into new discoveries and past memories.
"As people, just being creative is important. We're always trying to express ourselves," Shaddock said.
For people with a form of dementia, she said art therapy and programs like Memories in the Making can be beneficial in supporting expression and communication with others. "I think art is a great outlet for that because I think it provides an opportunity for someone to be able to make decisions pretty safely," she said.
Jackie Tripicco, a licensed clinical and community social worker for Kimball Farms Life Care in Lenox, agrees and said that people who are supporting someone with Alzheimer's or dementia are also in need of support, but often feel like they can't leave their loved one alone for safety reasons. People affected with these progressive diseases often suffer memory loss and declining mental functions that can interfere with everything from behavior to physical movement.
While Memories in the Making programs are available throughout the county and the country, the Berkshire Alzheimer's Partnership over the past year has uniquely expanded on the program model by convening a caregiver support group that simultaneously runs alongside the group art class, so that both patients and care partners can find support, encouragement and an outlet within the same safe setting. The support group is specifically designed for people who have a loved one still living at home versus in the care of an assisted living or nursing home facility.
"What we found is that we had an unmet need. There is great work and care happening in facilities, but what about people at home? They have needs too," said Tripicco, who co-chairs the partnership and coordinates the concurring arts therapy and support programs.
The program has been offered free of charge since last May, supported in part by a grant from the Pittsfield Cultural Council through the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Massachusetts/New Hampshire chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, and Kimball Farms. The 10-week program under the cultural council grant runs at the Froio Center. Then, when the program's going through the grant renewal process, Kimball Farms budgets it as a program called, "Meet Me at Kimball," which includes other art and music opportunities, while keeping the support group running too.
Though change and growth have manifested in different ways among the art program participants in the studio and their care partners meeting in the room across the hall, both Shaddock and Tripicco praise the progress of the people they respectively work with.
Each week, Shaddock says she notices more interaction between participants.
"There's a community developed in the art studio. That's another thing art can do — develop a community of artists. Being a part of a community is a big piece of [growth] too. As the weeks go by, there's been more talking and interacting," she said.
While talking with Shaddock about his work, Ed Plummer looked at his landscape and said, "I love it!"
"I can tell you love it," Shaddock said to Plummer, noting the care he took with his colors.
When he first began painting, Plummer would do his best to represent an image and try to write a clarifying description in paint on what he was doing. So Shaddock decided to give him a pencil to help. On a Sept. 13 painting, for example, he wrote, "Mt. view on lake — West View — green grass surrounding blue sky — snow on top." He would also leave quite a bit of white space on his pages.
A couple of months later, though, Shaddock said, Plummer began focusing on his technique, filling his pages with color from edge to edge, and writing his descriptions on the back. One description, dated Nov. 16, reads, "Morning Sun on the Mountains and the sky with so many different colors And the sun pokes itself out Another Day So much to enjoy."
His wife, Susan Plummer, said her husband won't paint at home, but notices how, since he began painting, Ed tends to speak up more when they're on their many scenic drives during week. "He notices the sun and patterns in the trees, and everything seems really new to him," she said. "It's nice and gives us something to talk about."
On the support group side, loved ones talk about their experiences with their friends, family members and spouses as they go through different phases and changes due to Alzheimer's disease or dementia. There's no cure or proven way to reverse the effects of the disease, so while the group provides a confidential space to cry or lightheartedly joke about the changes in their collectives lives and relationships, they also tend to talk with each other about ways to maintain a high quality of life for their loved one affected by the illness while also making building bonds and friendship to sustain one another in solidarity.
Asked why she decided to come to the group, Lynne Roberson said, "I knew I needed help badly."
She said she had relied on her husband, David Roberson, to manage many aspects of their lives, including finances and house maintenance. But the disease has affected David's ability to make accurate decisions and to clearly comprehend circumstances, so he's had to let those roles go.
While Lynne is devoted to getting David out and about as much as possible, be it for lunch or to go to the gym, she said of the support group and art therapy program, "This is a safe place where we can both come where there's something to help him and to help me."
In her role, Tripicco acts as a facilitator of dialogues, and also has the knowledge to make referrals to other programs, specialists and services as needed. For her work with the support group, Tripicco was awarded in March the 2017 Mary V. Lisbon Group Worker of the Year Award by the Massachusetts Chapter of the International Association of Social Workers with Groups Inc.
But, she said, "They need each other more than they need me. The friendships and relationships they've formed is phenomenal." She noted how the group members often plan other social outings together with their loved ones, as well as spending time one on one.
Tripicco said she hopes that when the next session begins, more people in the Berkshires will be encouraged to enroll so they and their loved ones won't have to feel like they're going at the disease alone.
"The opportunity for a person with Alzheimer's to be in a respectful, social environment is worth a try," she said. "And for a caregiver to not feel alone and to be able to relate to people who are living the life they're living is huge."
Shaddock said the dual program can also offer caregivers new perspectives of their loved ones as the human beings they are. She learned this in her own college experience, piloting a weaving project with her paternal grandfather when he transitioned to living in a nursing home due to Alzheimer's.
"Earlier in my life, he was the one teaching me things, but in this role, I was able to teach him something," she said. "I felt like I got to know him in a different way. ... You can always be learning and always developing, and I think it felt really good for him to have that be recognized and to see that this could help him to continue to grow."
Shaddock noted that through any arts therapy program, the focus should be on letting a person feel connection, stimulation and emotions versus developing into a fine artist.
"This is easier said than done," she said, "But it's so, so important to treat people who have dementia as the adults they are and not infantilize them. They are adults who may have cognitive challenges, but they're still adults."
To learn more about any upcoming sessions of the Memories in the Making/Caregiver Support Group, contact Jackie Tripicco at 413-637-7037.