The Wexford branch of the The Alzheimer Society of Ireland recently collaborated with visual artist Helen McLean on a 10-week art project for men with Alzheimer’s and their partner-carers. An exhibition, Side by Side, is now planned to showcase the artwork produced during the project.
Seven men at varying stages of Alzheimer’s or Dementia, ranging from very mild to severe, and their wives took part in the project which was facilitated in the art studio of Helen McLean in the Wexford Enterprise Centre. This venue was chosen so that participants could feel part of an ‘everyday’ setting, creating art outside of the customary parameters of day care or community centres. In this way, the artist and Sheila Gallagher, co-ordinator of the Alzheimer Association of Wexford, hoped to normalise the experience of Dementia and Alzheimer’s and engage the participants as active members of the community rather than passive recipients of care.
The project partners wanted to open up the social networks for people with dementia and involve the wider community in a safe and supportive way. Two volunteers who support Helen in the art studio helped to facilitate the sessions. The volunteers’ attendance was essential to the process as they stayed with individuals who were unable to paint alone. The volunteers’ patience and sense of humour with the men gave their wives complete freedom to do their own art and relax knowing their husband’s needs were dealt with in a considerate and sensitive manner. In the process, the volunteers learned about the realities of living with Alzheimer’s.
The project aimed to enable the men and their wives to learn a new skill, share the creative journey together in partnership and to engage in an activity that presented new territory for them in regards to how the carer and the loved one normally interacted. The project also aimed to improve the quality of life of both partners and reduce the sense of isolation and loneliness many experience with the condition. The partners sat side by side and for nearly all those who came it was the first time in their married lives that they had attended an activity together.
Helen McClean has run a number of community projects with adults over the last 20 years. This particular project was influenced by the outcomes of Lives Remembered, a two-year collaboration between Helen and the Alzheimer Association of Wexford. Fifteen participants created artworks and Helen visited participants and their families in their homes. A picture of the participants emerged through the stories of children and partners and the participants’ life narrative was illustrated through photos, objects, and text in a series of mosaic art ‘life’ panels. The project culminated in an exhibition in 2012 at the Blue Egg Gallery in Wexford.
Helen and Sheila decided that the next stage of the project would benefit from inviting people with Alzheimer’s and their life partners or carers to create art in the same space with the hope that this arts activity would continue outside the studio. For many of the couples the art session was their only journey out together in the week and it gave them an opportunity to interact with new people. As time went on, friendships were forged and the confidence of participants with Alzheimer’s grew. The facilitators noticed that the concentration of many of the participants improved and that by the end of the project painting for 2 hours did not present the same problems as it had at the beginning.
‘Alzheimer’s can be very isolating so it is nice to meet people with the same problem …. This is our social life … Coming here spurred me on with my driving. I only ever went to mass or the shopping on a Friday.’ (Partner-carer)
‘I like the class, it’s a merry bunch of people … definitely it helps in my mood, I come away and think that was a good one.‘ (Participant)
‘Through these sessions I witnessed these full time carers uncover a new way to communicate and to be positive with their loved ones through art whilst living each day with the negative associations surrounding the condition of Alzheimer’s.’ (Volunteer)
Side by Side, an exhibition of artwork produced during the project, is currently being planned for display in the Fusion Cafe, Wexford. For more information please email firstname.lastname@example.org.