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Empowering Elderly Artists

Many of the artists in Woodland Country Manor, a nursing home off of Somerville Road, know that 3:00 p.m. on Sundays is art time, and will come out of their rooms on their own. Others, however, need a reminder from their partner. I was given a room number and a partner named Corolla. I walked down the hall and knocked on the half-open door of room 305.

"Hey Corolla, I'm here to see if you wanna come join in the art project," I said.

I waited for a response, remembering how sometimes the silence goes on for an awkward length of time, but to always be patient.

"That's what I'm sitting here trying to decide," she eventually responded.

Opening Minds through Art (OMA) is an art program with an important mission, working to build a connection between people with various forms of dementia and Miami students. OMA was founded at the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in 2007. Since then, it has grown tremendously, and the program has been implemented in seven locations in the Cincinnati area.

The program focuses on "people-centered" ethics in order to cater to the artists and give them back a sense of self. OMA sends students that have completed training in how to properly guide elderly artists to complete art projects without hindering their independence. The projects are designed to be failure free and give full creative decisions to the artist.

I showed Corolla a picture of the project we were going to be doing, asking if she liked it and wanted to make her own. She hesitated before agreeing to come participate. I pushed her chair down the hall toward the tables where we were set up. She sat across from Stanley, a fellow artist, and I was across from Olivia George, another volunteer.

The work done by the volunteers in OMA is important for both the artists and the students. The artist is given a sense of independence through their work. They also get to interact with people other than nurses and family members.

As we got supplies, Corolla was enthralled listening to Stanley talk about where he was from in Ohio and how he was drafted into the war during his senior year of high school. He shared some memories of girls he dated and laughed remembering how he dated a woman from Japan even though they barely understood each other.

Corolla picked between two plates of paint, pink and red or two shades of blue, and went with the latter. She picked a leaf stamp and asked me to put the paint on it for her. She had a little difficulty stamping the paper, but she picked the spot she wanted it, so I helped to make sure the stamp was pressed hard enough.

Lifting it up, Corolla was very happy with the beautiful leaf left behind.

"Look at that!" she said, holding up the paper to look at it closer.

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She wanted to leave the single leaf alone, but the project was designed to layer the shapes and create new ones.

"Let's stamp another one. We have to layer the leaves. It's like fall!" I reminded her.

After making a few more stamps, Corolla decided she had enough leaves on the paper.

The goal is for the artist to complete the project with slight guidance and helpful reminders from the student. In doing so, the artist is seen as more than their disease and can express themselves in ways they might not otherwise be able to. The artists are also encouraged to name their pieces, allowing them to identify what they see in their art and giving them something to be proud of.

Corolla added some yellow watercolor. She sat examining the handle and print on the paintbrush before filling in the leaves. She was focused on her work, silently sitting and painting.

OMA not only aims to improve the artist's day, but teaches students that the artists are more than their disease; they're people too. It's very easy to diminish the lives of elderly artists, referring to them as cute or talking to them in simple ways -- the way one talks to a baby or a dog.

However, OMA teaches that by avoiding this, we give a sense of personhood back to the artists. We treat them like we would treat anyone else, but just have to be patient for that person to shine through.

The session ends with a song: "This Little Light of Mine." As we sang, Corolla continued to slowly paint.

Eventually, she decided her work was complete.

"It's not my favorite one," she told me. But, as we sat there, she held up her art and continued to admire it until it was time to take her back to her room.