Students ‘Opening Minds Through Art’

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“I’m going to hold this picture by my heart all day.”

“My mother had her paintings hanging on our wall, but I never appreciated them until now.”

“Watch out for me…I’m an artist!”

Touching words by some tremendous people, talented artists, we met Friday night at the Oxford Community Center.

The occasion was an exhibit of “Opening Minds through Art,” a program of Miami University’s Scripps Gerontology Center.

In the room:  Students and their art partners, Alzheimer patients from area nursing homes and care centers.

On the walls: Explosions of color, creativity and emotion – long-lost life memories coming alive again through art.

At the tables: Young students giving gentle strokes of support on sagging shoulders of wheelchair-bound partners. Tears. Pride. Accomplishment.  It is a picture I will hold in my heart, forever.

The exhibit, the art, the moment, was created  through the innovative program that pairs student interns and volunteers with older people in moderate to late stages of dementia. OMA is grounded in person-centered care ethics and founded on strength-based psychology that capitalizes on what people with dementia still can do.

The walls of the exhibit showed they can do a lot, if given an opportunity for creative expression and provided manageable choices and failure-free activities.

One of the 40 artists, Elmo, posed with student partner Julia Cresswell next to his work. Long-bearded and with a booming voice, the 83-year-old pointed to his painting with pride.

OMA“I worked with iron and wood on the railroad and with small gauge models all my life. Now I paint them,” Elmo said of the neatly designed, brightly colored piece, “Whoo-Choo,” which depicts his memories – his life’s love – of working with trains.

The students provide guidance, but the work is all done by their partners.  Some of the work was elegant and worthy of a world-class art exhibition.

The students bond with their partners.  OMA, the Dutch word for grandmother, becomes family to them and many  stay with the program even after they fulfill their academic requirements.

OMA’s web site contains testimonials of what the experience means to the students.  Jillian, a volunteer at Cedar Village, said, “After the first visit I realized how life changing OMA can be not only for the artist, but for the volunteers as well.  Seeing them smile and the look of satisfaction on their faces when they complete a piece of art is something that will stay with me forever.”

OMA was founded by Professor Elizabeth “Like” (pronounced Leeka) Lokon, who said, as a master’s student in the gerontological studies program, she didn’t know anything about dementia or anyone with it, and the more she studied it, the more she feared it.

CW.MU.Like.0413“I can probably handle a wheelchair, I can probably handle impaired eyesight or hearing, but I cannot dare thinking I’m going to lose my mind,” Lika explained on OMA’s web site. “So, because it was something I was afraid of, I immersed myself among people with dementia to see how they think, how they operate, how they respond.”

Now an adjunct associate professor and research associate with Scripps Gerontology Center, Like’s Upton Hall office is down the hall from the world-recognized center.  OMA started with one site and non-student volunteers. Six years later, OMA is now at nine sites with 117 artists and  112 student volunteers.

The mission of the center is to provide research, education, and services that make a positive difference in the lives of older people, their families, and their communities.

“As the older population dramatically increases, the research, education and services provided by Miami’s Scripps Center become increasingly important to society,” David Hodge, president of Miami University, said when the program was named an Ohio Center of Excellence in 2011. “We are proud at Miami University to be working to make a difference in the lives of older people, their families, and their communities, and in developing financially sustainable approaches to supporting an aging population.”

The vision for Scripps is to continue as a national leader in research designed to inform policy and improve practice, and to become a world leader in international gerontology.

That is a lofty goal for a small college in Southwestern Ohio.  It is training future leaders in the planning and management of long-term care and other aging programs—some of the fastest growing industries in an aging society.

But there’s no doubt that the future leaders at the art show Friday night are up to the task, with compassion and joyous smiles, one brush stroke at a time.

Charitable Words scholarships are available to students in the Department of Sociology and Gerontology, with assignments focused on support and services for the elderly. For information, contact Suzanne Kunkel, Director of the Scripps Center: (513) 529-2914 or kunkels@muohio.edu.

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