Residents in assisted living at the Village at South Farms recently completed a mural project that combined art therapy and recreation into a shared source of pride in their dining room.
About a dozen people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia worked on the painting, which hangs in four huge panels where residents gather on a daily basis.
“If you have Alzheimer’s or dementia one of the things you lose is your ability to communicate,” said Elizabeth Williams, director of community relations at the Village at South Farms. “The expression through art is very helpful, and of course it’s relaxing and it promotes a good environment.”
Arts programs are a common recreational activities for people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association of Connecticut said.
Williams, a former teacher, worked with an area artist to come up with the “Under the Sea” theme for the project.
Residents worked over about seven weeks to paint the canvases, she said.
“Art is a wonderful thing. You don’t have to be that great at it, you know? But it’s an expression,” said Ray Pihiel, 87, who was a teacher in New Britain and drew cartoons for his college newspaper.
Pihiel, one of the dozen or so residents who worked on the mural project, said working alongside his neighbors relieved tension and provided a chance to connect with a project.
“When you see your project finished, if it’s successful it makes you feel good,” Pihiel said. “It made me feel like I was participating in something.”
Artist Sue Riley, owner of Rooday Design, created the concept for the mural and worked with the Village residents throughout the project.
The Village at South Farms plans to build on the mural project to create another set of paintings for the second floor of the Mind and Memory neighborhood.
Executive Director Ryan Uhlman said 40 of the 95 assisted and independent living apartments are inside the dedicated Mind and Memory section of the center.
A variety of arts and music programming is offered to provide therapy options for a host of different tastes, he said.
“Even if you’re at end stage, it’s so important,” Uhlman said. “Even if they can’t express it verbally, they might be tapping their foot along to music, so physically they are doing something to show they are engaging with it.”
Williams said staff and residents wanted to provide art that invites a connection.
“There’s a lot of art here but it doesn’t lend itself to having meaning to the residents,” Williams said. “I wanted them to have something that really meant something to them.”
Next up is an “On the Water” theme to complement the “Under the Sea” theme of the recently completed project.
“I always liked drawing and painting,” said Erna Schaffhauser, 91. “I painted my own landscape scene at home. It’s something to keep you busy. I like the creation of it.”
Funding for the materials was provided by three local home care agencies.
Williams said the success of the project has the Village at South Farms considering more group art projects for all of its residents, including those in traditional independent living and assisted living apartments.
“Art can enrich the lives of people with Alzheimer's disease or related dementia because it allows for engagement and self-expression,” said Carolyn DeRocco, vice president of education and programs for the Alzheimer’s Association of Connecticut. “Participating in art projects can also create a sense of accomplishment and purpose.”
The painters varied in experience level, but several of the participants said they jumped at the chance to take on an art project.
“I’ve been messing around with art since I was in fifth grade. I had a teacher at Macdonough School [in Middletown] who pushed me,” said Frank Bartolotta, 92. “I enjoyed doing this, and watching other people and seeing how it affects them, it’s enough to make you satisfied. It makes us feel appreciated.”