The Ivey Explores the Color of Memory
The color of memory
by Page Leggett
The Ivey’s The Art of Brain Health, an exhibition by seniors with cognitive impairments, is on view in January
What color is winter?
For some, it could be the white of snow. For others, it’s silver and gold of ornaments and candlelight. And plenty of people associate red and green – the colors of Scottish plaid and Christmas – with the bundle-up season.
Some members of The Ivey, a not-for-profit organization in the SouthPark area dedicated to serving people living with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), early-stage dementia and Alzheimer’s were given the chance to paint winter as they saw it. To assist in the task, The Ivey staff played Antonio Vivaldi’s Winter from The Four Seasons.
Colleen Nolan, The Ivey’s life enrichment coordinator and speech-language pathologist, said that depicting a season through paint is an abstract concept for many. “Once people picked their colors and had their brushes in hand, it was very interesting to watch how creative some of them were,” she said. “We reminded them that there was no right or wrong way to do this; it’s just an opportunity to be creative.”
Tracey Esser, The Ivey’s life enrichment coordinator and music therapist, said, “We used music to facilitate the artmaking. Some of our members moved their paintbrushes in the same tempo as the music. Whether it was a single violin playing or a larger sound of a full orchestra, their painting would flow accordingly.”
Facilitators used a combination of music therapy and mindfulness to get members in a wintry state of mind. Nolan and Esser started with color. They asked what colors the music conjured for members.
“Before we gave them any paint, we tried to have them be ‘in the moment’ while listening to the music,” Esser said. “And we asked: What color does this music evoke for you?”
The music played while they painted; the piano, strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion inspired the movement of the brush on the page.
“Music can get the brain firing on all synapses,” Esser explained. “It gets everything working at one time. Music can also bring back memories. It allows people to engage their memories going all the way back to childhood. It allows seniors with memory impairment to express themselves in ways they might not be able to otherwise.”
The result of this painting session will be on display from Jan. 8 through Feb. 2 as part of a larger exhibition called The Art of Brain Health at the McDowell Arts Center (123 E. McDowell St.) in Matthews. The public is invited, however, the McDowell Arts Center is operating on reduced hours, so please call 704.321.7275 to ensure someone is there to let you in.
Lela Kometiani, the artist who regularly leads art classes at The Ivey, was the catalyst in organizing this exhibition.
The Ivey offers art classes to members, who may range in age from late 60s up to 89. The media can range from paint on canvas to multimedia, clay, even silk painting.
Over 30 pieces of art will be on display – some in their entirety and others, such as the Vivaldi Winter-inspired works, fashioned into a collaborative piece. The paintings created during the Winter session were cut into the shapes of small violins that were applied to a big canvas to create a collage – a group art project. The finished collage will contain bits and pieces from the work of each of the members who participated in the art activity.
All is calm
Mindfulness played a big part in the artmaking – as it does regularly at The Ivey. Nolan usually leads 30-minute mindfulness sessions weekly. “This is not meditation,” she clarified. “It’s designed to get people feeling more present in their bodies.”
Being mindful helps calm the nervous system, Nolan said. “The stress response – fight, flight or freeze – releases cortisol, known as the stress hormone.”
“Some of our members are aware of their diagnosis,” she added. “Even those with mild dementia may tell you, ‘I have dementia.’ And that in itself can bring on stress. During our mindfulness sessions, we’ll do what I call a body scan. We’ll sit in the room, and I give verbal cues – from toes to nose – to check in with each part of the body and see how it’s feeling in the present moment. And there’s a focus on the breath while we’re doing this.”
She focuses on the senses – mindful listening, mindful seeing, mindful touch. “And within those activities, there’s memory that’s brought up. Long-term memory is still very much there.”
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease cannot be reversed, but Nolan said The Ivey staff works to help maintain the level where members are. “We’re trying to push off decline for as long as possible,” she said. “My goal is to always help our members feel safe. If they are in a state of fight or flight or freeze (in a mindfulness session), I do whatever I can to help move them out of that.”
Songs you know by heart
The arts are an important component of The Ivey’s programming.
Kometiani leads the visual arts lessons. “She does amazing work, ” said Esser. “One month, she might focus on, for example, Vincent van Gogh. She’ll do a slideshow of his paintings, talk about his life and his art. Then, the next time she comes in, she’ll have everyone paint in the style of van Gogh.”
Music therapy is offered at least once a week. It might even be spontaneous. Both Esser and Nolan talked about the importance of “reading the room” and offering the kind of session their members need on any given day. A rainy, cloudy day, for instance, might tire people out. A singalong can help energize and unite the group.
At the holidays, Esser led the members in singing Christmas carols and playing handbells. “We’re fortunate we work with Queens University,” she said. “We have students who complete practicum hours from the music therapy department with us, and they’re a joy to be around.”
Always, the songs they sing are from the era members are familiar with – predominantly, the 1940s and ‘50s. No song sheets are needed; they know the words and the melody by heart.
“We’ve had several members say they can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” Esser said. “I always tell them it doesn’t matter. If it makes you feel good, that’s what we want. Singing can change their mood and their whole day.”
And artistic ability doesn’t matter, either. Creativity stimulates the brain. The arts, as it turns out, are good medicine.
Leaf Through More About The Ivey
The Ivey is a Charlotte, NC-based not-for-profit organization devoted to serving individuals living with early memory or cognition concerns and their caregivers through programs designed to optimize brain health for aging well, promote memory wellness, and provide respite and education for the whole family as well as the entire Charlotte community.
This story was sponsored by The Ivey. A portion of that sponsorship will be donated to the HUG Micro-Grant program to assist Charlotte-based creatives.
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