Miami University Gerontology Students Find Joy In ‘Opening Minds Through Art’

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Charitable Scholars Eleni Balli, Josie Ridgeway-Rader and Jessica Littrell have been on assignment with “Opening Minds through Art,” a program of Miami University’s Scripps Gerontology Center. Here is their report from the field:


Anna and Josie Ridgeway-Rader

Anna and Josie Ridgeway-Rader

Opening Minds through Art (OMA) aims to build bridges across age and cognitive barriers by creating a failure-free atmosphere, which is shared by a person with dementia (the OMA artist) and a student or community volunteer. 

OMA sessions begin in a similar fashion each week.  Volunteers greet elders and peruse works of art for inspiration, building anticipation for the upcoming hour.  The room comes alive with the buzz of conversation, and all participants come together to sing a round of “You Are My Sunshine.”  Student leaders weave through the room effortlessly and undetected as they pour paint, pass materials, and provide any necessary assistance.

“I’m not an artist,” say hesitant elders. “Here, you do it. You’ll do it better.”

Herein lies the beauty of OMA:  Everyone can create something beautiful. Each activity is carefully designed with strengths-based psychology in mind. That is, OMA capitalizes on what people with dementia can still do. The art-making process is broken down into manageable steps, choices are incorporated, and abstraction is encouraged.

Volunteers offer guidance and reassurance as needed to facilitate creative expression. Finished artwork is shared and artists beam with pride at their own work and the work of others.


Josie Ridgeway-Rader, Eleni Balli and Jessica Littrell

Josie Ridgeway-Rader, Eleni Balli and Jessica Littrell

OMA captivates the hearts and minds of everyone involved.  Its commitment to person-centered ethics fosters personal growth, autonomy and dignity in people with dementia. All the while, OMA gives volunteers a chance to reexamine the ways in which they view aging, older adults and people with dementia. This is a key component of the program, as the relationships built during the semester overcome age and cognitive barriers and highlight the humanity we all share. How often can one find such strong shades of beauty with subtle hues of joy, all complimented with more than a little compassion? Miami University’s Charitable Words Scholars have only encountered it once: OMA.

For most of us, OMA isn’t just a couple-hours-a-week event; it’s an enduring friendship that lasts through memory loss, illness, and even death. Although we are sad when our partners pass away, sadness does not define our work in OMA – quite the opposite in fact! It’s absolutely bursting with joy. The sessions are filled with smiles and laughter and visits are filled with hugs and stories, love and delight.

People think that we are helping others, but they forget how much these individuals with dementia are helping us become better people and stronger advocates for our future generations.

“Relationships have a way of changing lives, every single one of them,” said one student volunteer. “And with OMA, it has been a reminder that life is beautiful and precious, that we will all age and some day die, but until we do, how valuable each day is.”

Thank you, from Charitable Words:

Charitable Words thanks Eleni, Jessica and Josie for their important work and impressive accomplishments. And thank you to Miami University’s Scripps Geronology Center. 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

 “Aging With Dignity” is one of Charitable Words’ fields of focus, as well as “Arts for All.”

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  Dr. Kunkel also is engaged with Charitable Words in its network of advisors.

About Opening Minds Through Art:

Opening Minds Through Art is an 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 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 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.

Charitable Words

Dr. Elizabeth “Like” Lokon with an OMA artist

“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,” Like 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. Seven years later, OMA is now at nine sites with 125 artists and  200 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.

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