Create|Relate Program — For People Newly Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s

A partnership between Tidewater Arts Outreach and the Alzheimer’s Association, Southeastern Virginia Chapter

Originally posted from Tidewater Arts Outreach

Every hour, fifty people in the U.S. receive the dreadful news: they have been afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.  A disease that knows no cure; a disease that strikes seemingly at random; a disease that robs us of lifetimes of love, intellect, and dignity.  It is difficult to imagine receiving such a diagnosis.  By the time people go to the doctor’s to find out what is wrong, they have had difficulty or have had to stop working, driving, reading for pleasure, phoning friends to chat.  Now they are at home, isolated by the shame of their new confusion, the new normal that they know will only get much worse.

Tidewater Arts Outreach knows arts programs can offer many benefits to dementia sufferers, including stimulation, socialization, opportunities for self-expression through singing, painting, dancing, playing an instrument…and much more.  We have presented a number of workshops to demonstrate best practices for these individuals – Opening Minds Through Art and the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, to name two.  So we were thrilled to partner with the Southeastern Virginia chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association to use the arts to connect, in a new way, with people who have been newly diagnosed with dementia and their caregivers.  Our first pilot project, which we called Create|Relate, was presented on May 15 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Norfolk.  In addition to arts, the series includes components of mind and body health exercises and time to connect socially with one another.  There were six couples in attendance – five married couples and one father/daughter couple.

“Drum, tap, tap…boom…yeah!” The beat of the drums created a rhythm and sound around the drum circle that was amplified by smiles and laughter. Arthur Lopez, a Tidewater Arts Outreach (TAO) artist and ‘Drum your Dream’ drum circle facilitator, knows how to work a room.  It was beautiful to witness the freedom and laughter that rippled through the group.  Arthur encouraged experimentation and assured that there is no ‘right’ way to drum. Especially empowering was the opportunity for each person to say their name and then perform a drum solo that expressed how they felt; that rhythm was then repeated by the group in a chorus. For people whose choices are limited in everyday life, this exercise of individual rhythm-making was obviously uplifting.

Create | Relate co-facilitator Carol Gurioli related what she saw:

“I was amazed to see the evident joy on the faces of each and every participant in my line of sight.  The joy was both individual and shared between each couple there.  I saw individuals walking arm in arm or conversing closely who do not normally interact with each other–I see this as evidence of the bonding power of a well-conducted drum circle. People talked animatedly afterward; before the event, most were slow moving, afterward even those using canes appeared energized.”

Some comments overheard by participants:

“This is the most I have seen my wife smile in the last six months.” (Spouse whose wife has a younger onset form of dementia which affects her eyesight and speech)

“I loved how the instructor was so positive.  We need more ‘positive’ in our lives.” (Diagnosed individual)

“Can’t wait for the next one.  We will definitely be here.” (caregiver husband and wife)

“I will put in for leave from work to be sure I can bring my dad each time.”

During the early stages of the disease it is common for people to withdraw socially while their activities decrease. Create/Relate arts programs help mitigate these challenges by providing other ways to connect and engage.  The arts – all of the arts – can build community, create happiness, inspiration, hope,healing and opportunities for self-expression.  New research shows that the area of the brain responsible for imagination and creativity is one of the last areas to be affected by dementia.  The brain, even a brain damaged by disease, responds positively to stimulating experiences.  By showing dementia sufferers that artistic activities can be appropriate and fulfilling, we are giving them new tools to cope with their illness.

There will be two pilot programs in total for Create|Relate, with the second on June 19.  We are grateful to sponsorship by the Alzheimer’s Association SEVA chapter for their financial support of these two programs.  It costs roughly $375 to present a session.  We hope to present Create|Relate in a series of twelve twice-monthly sessions.

The arts have the power to transcend differences and circumstances, ultimately providing new ways to experience life and healing. We hope that this can be the first of many Create/Relate programs bringing more smiles of joy and healing for those in need.

Photos by Jim Knox, Knox Studios

Photos by Jim Knox, Knox Studios


About maryann4tao

Executive Director at Tidewater Arts Outreach. Former Volunteer Hampton Roads Training Manager and United Way/Salt Lake City Major Gifts Officer.
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