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Art opens seniors' minds

By Audrey Zimmerman
On May 6, 2014

Monday afternoons begin with an apron, art supplies and a 3:30 p.m. meeting at a local retirement community for students in the Opening Minds through Art program at Miami University.

Opening Minds through Art, or OMA, is an intergenerational art program for people with dementia. It is offered as a service-learning course through the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami and gives students the opportunity to help elders create pieces of abstract artwork, while earning credits toward their degrees. However, many of these student-volunteers have realized that OMA goes much deeper than just being a fun way to fulfill course requirements.

Miami University senior Jeremy Ferlic is paired with Marge Mackey at The Knolls of Oxford in Oxford, Ohio.

"I can honestly say that OMA is the reason I now look forward to Mondays instead of dreading them," Ferlic said. "Helping Marge isn't hard work, but it makes a difference, in her life and in mine."

Once a week, Ferlic - along with 14 other student-volunteers - spends an hour and a half with his partner, helping her create her own artwork and getting to know her better over the course of the semester.

"She's very quick to pick up on my emotions and how I say things," Ferlic said. "When I'm excited about the art project, she feels it too and it translates into her attitude."

Student-volunteers aren't the only ones who notice the meaningful partnerships OMA creates. OMA's Assistant Director and Senior Research Assistant Beth Rohrbaugh is actively involved with several of the volunteer sites in the local community and observes the friendships that form between students and elders.

"Many students enroll in the class expecting to fulfill a credit obligation or with the intent of giving of their time and talent to another individual, but they come away with so much more than they ever expected," Rohrbaugh said. "In addition to learning about people with dementia, students get the opportunity to experience a real relationship with the elderly, something so many of that generation don't have."

OMA was founded in 2007 by Dr. Elizabeth Lokon and now serves 200 pairs of elders and volunteers annually at several locations in nearby communities.

"Through their service to people with dementia, students' beliefs and opinions regarding the elderly are most often transformed in a very personal way," Rohrbaugh said.

OMA's mission is to build bridges across age and cognitive barriers through art and so far, they are doing just that.

"I've gained an appreciation for just how much something as simple as time can mean to someone," Ferlic said.

As the week's session came to a close Miami University senior, Bryn Wilkin, spoke and laughed with her partner - Knolls resident, Flora Burrows.

"I enjoyed today very much," Burrows said.

"We had a lot of fun," Wilkin said. "We usually do."


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